Wayne Turnage, deputy mayor for health and human services, said D.C. agencies are trying to ensure that the homeless people living there are connected to “housing and behavioral supports.”
The District began pushing for a redo of the park in 2013 and gained approval from Congress in 2018 to enter into a partnership with the National Park Service to revamp it. Officials have set aside $13.9 million for the project to bring a pavilion, a fountain, a space for art exhibits, a children’s play area — and public bathrooms for a downtown bereft of them. The hope is for Franklin Square to become an outdoor draw, like Manhattan’s Bryant Park.
Visitors and businesses near the park have long complained about unsanitary and unsafe conditions at Franklin Square. And as the coronavirus pandemic reduced the number of people who could stay at area shelters, more people began setting up tents in the park.
George Rivera isn’t sure how long he’s been sleeping in his tent there. He came to the park in downtown Washington about six or seven months ago after he injured his head, and because of the injury or because of his drinking, he said, he has trouble remembering things.
He thinks he’s supposed to get a housing voucher soon, but he may have forgotten to call his caseworker to complete the process.
The park has been an oasis of sorts to him. Rivera, 64, hasn’t seen anyone sick during the pandemic and thinks living outdoors boosts the immune system.
“It’s relatively safe,” he said, lying on the ground next to a mostly empty bottle of Steel Reserve. “It’s not as safe as having your own place.”
Signs posted at the park explain the renovation, which includes restoration of the tree canopy, eliminating rodent infestations, replacing paths and the installation of rain gardens, among other improvements.
The signs also explain how those about to be displaced from the park can continue to access services, referring them to the city’s nearby downtown day center for the homeless and its shelter hotline, among other assistance.
The encampment clearance comes as weeks of street protests over police reform and the shutdown that accompanied the pandemic disrupt the District’s homeless services. Advocates worry that the city is already not doing enough for those without homes and say displacing people will only make their problems worse.
The Rev. Glenna J. Huber, rector of the Church of the Epiphany, blocks from Franklin Square, said the coronavirus crisis and the closure of other encampments, including one beneath an underpass near Union Station in January, had turned Franklin Square into “more of a tent city.”
Epiphany offers food, clothes and cleaning supplies to people living in Franklin Square, and it has prepared for an increase in need that the long-planned renovation is expected to bring.
“There are more people now,” Huber said. “I think it’s really just the result of pushing out folks in other places. As different tent cities are shut down by the city . . . people are relocating.”
Lissa Ramsepaul, clinical director for the D.C. homeless outreach organization Street Sense, said Franklin Park’s closure will affect a population that has already borne more than its share of tumult amid downtown demonstrations in recent weeks.
Some of those living in Franklin Square were displaced from Lafayette Square by protests and fences erected there in their wake, she said. Some of her clients have participated in the protests — but some have also been assaulted during the demonstrations or had their tents destroyed by vandals.
Others have mental illness and don’t respond well to police officers in riot gear, bursting flash-bang grenades or the roar of low-flying helicopters that have been used to monitor the protests.
Beverly Perry, senior adviser to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), said the Franklin Square renovation was not intended to displace anyone but to beautify downtown Washington.
“It will be a major attraction to our city,” Perry said. “We’re one of the few cities our size that doesn’t have an urban park within the city.”
Huber said she is focused on helping those in need. She said encampments and the problems they bring will persist as long as the District’s affordable-housing crisis does.
“The solution would be to house people,” she said. “Put people in homes. Come up with affordable housing. Spend money so people don’t have to live in tents in the park.”