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Opinion Encampments are not the way to help D.C.'s homeless

Unhoused people lived in a tent encampment in D.C.'s L Street NE tunnel in January 2020. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Even before a man at a homeless encampment was fatally shot on Monday, there had been problems at the small tent city located near a busy thoroughfare in downtown D.C. Police had responded to numerous calls about drugs, thefts, vandalism and threatening behavior. Nearby residents complained about the blighted conditions and what they saw as a growing public safety hazard. Within hours of Monday’s events — police are still sorting out exactly what happened — officials cleared out the encampment, removing tents, a portable toilet and a shopping cart, and offering housing to the people who had stayed there.

Should the city have acted sooner? Why did someone have to die before action was taken? The situation at the Thomas Circle encampment brings into focus the fraught questions D.C. — and other American cities — faces in trying to deal with a homeless population that has ended up living in tents on city streets.

As of April, there were 97 encampment sites across D.C. with at least one tent; 255 people were estimated to be connected to the sites. The rise of encampments — some 40 percent from 2020 to 2021 — has been tied to the pandemic and the advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that cities not crack down on them because of the extraordinary challenges posed by the coronavirus. So even though D.C. this year reported the lowest number of people living on the street or in a shelter in 17 years, according to the annual point-in-time count, the sites gave heightened visibility to the issue of people without shelter.

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Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) last year initiated a pilot program aimed at clearing out the encampments that have sprouted across the city. Four were selected for clearance, based on size, health and safety risk, and competing use of public spaces. People camped out at them were given notice, offered housing options in the way of shelter, hotels or vouchers for apartments, plus wraparound services to deal with other issues such as drug dependency or mental illness. There was pushback and criticism. Some advocates said the city wasn’t doing enough and called for those living in encampments to stand their ground. Some members of the D.C. Council, including two members challenging Ms. Bowser in next month’s Democratic primary, sought to block implementation of the effort. The administration was not deterred. To be sure, there were missteps, including the clumsy use of a bulldozer to clear a site, but the program had the support of a majority of D.C. residents. And, more importantly, officials report there has been some promising success in getting residents of the encampments into alternative housing.

A report on the pilot program is now in the works. That should help guide D.C. in deciding whether adjustments in the program are needed and what steps to take regarding the remaining encampments. What should be clear is that conditions often associated with these encampments — rodent infestations, fetid surroundings, hazardous housing — are unacceptable. They don’t help the homeless, and they should have no place in America.

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Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Deputy Editorial Page Editor Karen Tumulty; Deputy Editorial Page Editor Ruth Marcus; Associate Editorial Page Editor Jo-Ann Armao (education, D.C. affairs); Jonathan Capehart (national politics); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (global public health); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Molly Roberts (technology and society); and Stephen Stromberg (elections, the White House, Congress, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care).