Patrick Geiger is an intern at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and volunteer at Street Sense Media. Aaron Howe is conducting an ethnography of homeless encampments in the District.
According to data from the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, the D.C. government “engaged” homeless encampments 100 times in 2018. “Engagement” in this case refers to encampment “cleanups” carried out under the guidance of the District’s Protocol for the Disposition of Public Property Found on Public Space and Outreach to Displaced Persons. The goal of the cleanups is to ensure that public spaces in the District remain “clean and safe.” However, our research shows that cleanups are anything but safe for people experiencing homelessness.
During “cleanups,” homeless residents are forced to pack up and move their tents. For the homeless, whose every material possession is often stored in their tents, this recurring process is a constant source of stress and anxiety. The fear of losing everything one owns weighs heavily on all homeless residents, many of whom already are coping with mental-health issues. Moreover, the District does not help people move their belongings, putting individuals with disabilities at greater risk of losing property.
“I used to feel ashamed about all this,” a homeless resident told us when asked what he thinks of these evictions. “Then intimidated,” he continued. “Now I don’t feel nothing, man. This is harassment, plain and simple.”
There is no concern for those who find themselves unexpectedly unable to move their stuff. One homeless resident told us,“I came home from the hospital, I had a heart attack you see. . . . When I got back, all my stuff was gone. I couldn’t believe it. I slept on the ground that night. No coat, no blanket, no nothing. I was in the hospital again the next week.”
Not only do these evictions cost the District hundreds of thousands of dollars, but they also disrupt the daily lives of people experiencing homelessness, which makes it harder for them to take the steps needed to exit homelessness. Finding affordable housing is hard enough, but doing so after you’ve had your identification thrown out is nearly impossible. “It’s just ridiculous. It don’t make sense,” remarked one NoMa encampment resident. “All they are doing is making us mad and wearing us out. I just don’t get it.”
Clean and safe public spaces should be a priority for the District. But they should not come at the expense of the city’s most vulnerable residents. By any metric, the District’s encampment cleanups are a failed policy. The money spent on them could be better invested in affordable housing and other homeless services. Studies have shown that providing housing for people experiencing homelessness actually saves cities money in the long run. Each year since 2015, the District has had to conduct more encampment cleanups than the year before. Clearly, cleanups do nothing to lift people out of homelessness and will continue to be a drain on public resources until they are stopped altogether.
Further, the cleanups do very little to keep public spaces clean. Almost immediately after cleanups are over, residents begin setting up their tents again. This is because encampment residents choose locations that give them their best shot at survival and, understandably, do not want to move from those locations. Thus, the short-term physical and emotional duress encampment residents are put under provides no long-term gain for the city. Public spaces can be cleaned without displacing the people who live in them. The city could simply collect trash and remove any hazardous materials from encampments on a regular basis. This would achieve the same results as current cleanups without the unnecessary violence.
Alternatively, the city could also get serious about fixing its broken shelter system. Living outside is dangerous, especially in winter. But many people actively chose to live in encampments as opposed to using the shelter system. Why? Crime, unsanitary conditions and dehumanizing rules and regulations all keep people away from shelters.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said she wanted to make homelessness “rare, brief, and non-recurring .” Encampment cleanups do nothing to achieve this and actually make it harder for people experiencing homelessness to improve their living situations. The city must stop displacing its most vulnerable residents and instead invest in real solutions.