The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C.’s largest homeless encampment is cleared, in shadow of White House

National Park Service crews remove a tent and clothing Wednesday where a homeless woman had been staying in McPherson Square in downtown D.C. (Video: Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post, Photo: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
8 min

After two weeks of intense outreach and citywide hand-wringing over the future of the homeless campers at McPherson Square, the National Park Service evicted dozens of people from their downtown tents Wednesday morning and arrested two men who refused to leave.

Five hours after the clearing began, Park Police hauled the final, handcuffed resident out of the park amid some onlookers’ chants of “shame.” The two men, charged with violation of the park closure, were later released. The encampment, the largest in the nation’s capital, became a political flash point in recent weeks as homeless residents and their advocates appealed to the mayor, President Biden and other officials to halt the sweep.

Instead, the homeles campers scattered Wednesday from the park, which was occupied by about 70 people before the accelerated clearing was announced late last month. Some headed to new tents erected in nearby parks. Others said they would make camp in a more remote part of the District, hoping they might then be left alone. About 15 residents left the encampment having been approved by D.C. for a housing voucher that would provide cash assistance for housing. But a voucher is not an apartment key, and even some of those who had been approved for aid weren’t sure where they would sleep Wednesday night.

Expedited clearing of McPherson Square leaves D.C., homeless scrambling

The problem of homelessness and how to solve it has vexed leaders in D.C. and cities around the country as housing costs have skyrocketed and encampments have multiplied over the past decade. Down the street from McPherson Square, the White House laid out a plan last year to cut homelessness by 25 percent by 2025. But in cities across the country, similar plans have snagged on the complex web of poverty, addiction, mental health struggles and overwhelming mistrust among many unhoused people.

In Chicago, overcrowded shelters and extreme cold have driven hundreds of homeless residents to seek shelter inside O’Hare International Airport. In Portland, Ore., the city is considering creating campgrounds for its homeless residents on empty lots that can be monitored and connected with social services. In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams (D) has pushed an aggressive response to encampments and said the city may involuntarily hospitalize people suffering from mental illness.

The Park Service cleared McPherson Square, located just blocks from the White House, at D.C.’s request. The agency said in a statement Wednesday morning that McPherson Square was being closed to the public “because of very serious concerns about growing threats to life, health and safety.”

Unlike many American cities, homelessness in D.C. is at its lowest in recent history, driven down largely by significant strides in addressing family homelessness. But the number of encampments — made more visible by their large tents and bright tarps — has grown during the pandemic. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) pledged during her first run for office to end chronic homelessness by 2024. Nine years later, D.C. officials have blamed a staff shortage for its slow rollout of housing vouchers that advocates say could house nearly all of the city’s chronically homeless residents, thanks to an infusion of federal pandemic funds.

Cities like D.C. have the funds to house the homeless. What they need is staff.

“To be able to address it, we need to get creative and find new solutions,” said Peggy Bailey, the vice president for housing and income security for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan think tank and member of the National Coalition for Housing Justice. “I’m just sad. This city has the resources to make it so that it doesn’t have to be this way.”

As Wednesday’s 10 a.m. deadline drew near, a crowd grew of television crews, blue-vested outreach workers, protesters, priests, elected leaders and curious office staff who peered into McPherson from nearby windows. Hours earlier, homeless residents stepped out of their tents to find new fencing blocking several entrances to the park as dozens of outreach workers and several volunteers gathered at its center.

Outreach personnel spent Wednesday morning crouching at tent doors and imploring campers to start packing before coverall-clad federal workers began to break down tents, scoop up apparently discarded items and feed them to a trash compactor.

Some homeless residents complied, piling their belongings into trash bags, open suitcases, shopping carts and plastic, Ikea-blue shopping bags. Others refused. One woman shut herself inside her tent, tying the door closed with towels, socks and other pieces of cloth to prevent anyone from unzipping the flap.

“I have no idea what I’m going to do,” she said through the green nylon of her tent about 9 a.m. “I guess maybe I’ll have to get a hotel or something. I don’t know. I don’t know. Nobody has told me anything.”

Wayne Turnage, the deputy mayor for health and human services, said that as of Tuesday about 55 people remained in the encampment. Those who had been approved for housing assistance were eligible for bridge housing — temporary accommodations for unhoused individuals who qualify for a voucher until they can be placed in a more permanent home — but only eight had agreed to enter into that program.

As case workers crowded around a tent in the southeast corner of the park Wednesday, a resident named Umi called to one of her neighbors: “Don’t let them rush you,” she said. “They should have been here in September, October, November. But now they want to pretend they care about us?”

Umi, who said she plans to testify Thursday before the D.C. Council about her encampment experience and frustration with the Bowser administration’s rollout of services, said she and other residents had for months asked for help from D.C. and federal agencies to address the issues Turnage said spurred the expedited closure of the park. Longtime encampment residents said they had asked police to intervene to address drug dealing and other crimes and called for rat and trash abatement; little, they said, was done.

“How are we supposed to trust you?” Umi said to a caseworker. “Now you show up. Why? To get the park ready for the rich people who come to see the cherry blossoms.”

Caseworkers estimated that about 20 people who sleep in the park had not been engaged by service providers as of Tuesday afternoon because they refused help or had not been located, said Jamal Weldon, who oversees the District’s response to homeless encampments for Turnage’s department.

Lisa, 54, had missed most of the on-site services because she works and was often away from the park during the hours most caseworkers came. After being evicted from her home in Northeast Washington, Lisa said, she lived for months at an encampment on Ninth Street NW. When that was shut down last year, she moved to McPherson.

“Some of us work,” she said. “We can’t be here in the middle of the day when the outreach workers come by.”

As federal workers cleared the tents, rats scurried around the park, burrowing under leaves and climbing the Park Service fencing.

One downtown worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, walked the perimeter of the park applauding. “Finally,” he shouted at the crowd of protesters, press and police. “It looks like a park is supposed to look!”

Over the past two weeks, D.C. Council members came out in support of or against the clearing of McPherson Square. Protesters took to the streets outside the Interior Department on Tuesday, and members of the National Coalition for Housing Justice called on the Biden administration to intervene and stop the removal. But according to a Washington Post poll in February 2022, three-quarters of D.C. residents supported the mayor’s plan to shut down the encampments.

In a news conference Wednesday, Bowser rejected the notion that unhoused campers were being “evicted.”

“We’re not talking about this notion that people are being evicted from outside squalid conditions,” Bowser said. “What we’re doing is insisting that people get connected to the services that we know work.”

As morning became afternoon and the number of tents in the park dwindled, Max, 33, sat at the intersection of 15th and I streets NW holding onto the handle of a blue shopping cart in which she had stacked her clothes, bedding and cheetah-print backpack. A native Washingtonian, she said McPherson was her fifth encampment.

“When you’ve got to move out from the place you’ve been staying, it’s always hard; you always feel some type of way,” she said, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. “But I realized after awhile that this tent is just for sleeping and storing. It’s not my home. You can’t think of it that way.”

Max was recently approved for a voucher, she said. When the news came, she had hoped McPherson Square would be the last encampment she would have to sleep in. But she doesn’t have an apartment yet. Bridge housing, she said, won’t work for her, because “I don’t get along with others.” So, she decided to do what she knows: pitch a tent.

She’s already got a new one set up in Foggy Bottom, she said. All she needed Wednesday was a ride.

Kyle Swenson and Karina Elwood contributed to this report.