The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

McPherson Square homeless camp to be cleared two months early, NPS says

Ducks waddle in McPherson Square in January, during a census of those experiencing homelessness in D.C. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
4 min

The sprawling homeless encampment in McPherson Square, just blocks away from the White House, will be cleared of tents and the people who live in them on Feb. 15 — two months earlier than expected, following an urgent request from the D.C. government, according to a National Park Service letter obtained by The Washington Post.

The encampment, the largest in the District, has become a persistent reminder of the affordable housing crisis hitting the nation’s capital and of the government’s ongoing efforts to remove clusters of campers from downtown parks. Following the removal of homeless residents and their belongings, the NPS letter said, the McPherson Square park will be closed off by a fence “for rehabilitation” purposes.

Seeking a census count for the unhoused in D.C.

NPS officials posted signs around the park Monday announcing the change of date. The encampment had previously been scheduled to be cleared April 12. District policy requires a 14-day notification period before encampment sites are shut down.

Mike Litterst, an NPS spokesman, said the District’s Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services had asked that the federal agency move up its timeline for clearing the park because of “high levels of illegal drug and other criminal activity” that “impedes social services’ outreach and endangers social services providers, mental health clinicians, unsheltered individuals and the public.”

The NPS letter, dated Jan. 27 and sent to Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Wayne Turnage, notes that Turnage requested on Jan. 9 that the park be cleared as soon as Feb. 1. Turnage did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

D.C. had a plan to end chronic homelessness. Why isn’t it working yet?

The District “reports that contracted social service providers and mental health clinicians feel increasingly unsafe working at McPherson Square and are unable to provide on-site services to an encampment of this size,” reads the NPS letter, signed by Jeffrey P. Reinbold, superintendent of the National Mall and memorial parks.

McPherson Square sits two blocks from the White House, in an area heavily trafficked by tourists, government officials and workers whose offices dot downtown. Its homeless encampment has grown over the past year as the city and the NPS cleared several other areas where unhoused people frequently camped, including tents outside Union Station and under the Metro overpass in NoMa. NPS officials estimate that there are more than 70 individuals living at the McPherson Square park, a number that has continued to climb over the past several months.

The rescheduling will force the homeless people staying there to relocate during hypothermia season, something D.C. and Park Service officials typically try to avoid. The agency’s letter says it “makes every effort” to schedule clearings outside the coldest months of the year, “except in cases requiring immediate action to address imminent health and safety risks.”

NPS officials said they had received an increased number of complaints about the encampment in recent months, including of trash and debris blocking public access, allegations of drug use, prostitution and harassment of passersby. Several people have died of drug overdoses in or around McPherson Square over the past six months, NPS officials said, the most recent of which happened in early January.

Biden aims to cut homelessness 25% by 2025

U.S. Park Police, which has jurisdiction over federal parks such as McPherson Square, has reported “growing criminal operations” and has identified individuals in the encampment “potentially linked with high levels of violence and illegal activity” at a nearby encampment that was torn down in December, Reinbold wrote.

The number of homeless encampments in the District increased by over 40 percent from 2020 to 2021, according to data kept by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, despite an overall decrease in the city’s homeless population over the past several years.

Inflation is making homelessness worse

NPS does not oversee social services provided to homeless individuals on federal property, nor is it able to offer vouchers or other paths to housing. Instead, the federal agency partners with D.C. officials and community organizations that contract with the District to assist residents.

In Reinbold’s letter, he wrote that Turnage assured NPS that moving the clearing up by two months “will not substantially impact the ongoing efforts to move unsheltered individuals into permanent housing.”

Reinbold wrote that service providers have worked for close to four months to engage encampment residents and that Turnage’s office told NPS “that an additional month of engagement will not result in a meaningful increase in the number of individual moved into housing.”

It was not immediately clear how many McPherson Square encampment residents have been or will be offered housing by Feb. 15.