On Tuesday, the District of Columbia Council backed Washington Mayor Muriel Bowsers decision to forge ahead with a controversial initiative to remove homeless people from encampments in public spaces across the city. This past summer, Bowser established a pilot program to relocate unhoused residents into affordable housing options while simultaneously establishing no camping zones to prevent people from moving back to tent cities. Since early October, city councilmembers and residents have butted heads with the mayor over the Coordinated Assistance and Resources for Encampments (CARE) pilot. Workers have already cleared three encampments, where more than 100 people lived.
Encampment clearings are the latest flashpoint in the national debate over how to handle the growing number of tent cities, which has pitted homeless citizens against state and local governments. Homelessness has become more visible during the pandemic, as some people have opted to live in outdoor tents rather than homeless shelters to avoid contracting COVID. However, municipal officials nationwide have resorted to more aggressive, punitive policies that fail to address the major issues facing people who are chronically homeless.
Over the past 15 years, anti-camping legislation has surged as the number of encampments has increased. According to a 2019 survey by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which examined 187 cities across all 50 states, 37 percent of cities ban camping in public and 57 percent prohibit camping in specific public places. In June, Texas passed a statewide camping ban that criminalizes setting up shelter or storing personal belongings on public property for extended periods of time. This fall, Los Angeles, Miami, and Oakland passed similar ordinances.
Housing-first approaches that were dismissed as radical when they first appeared two decades ago are now considered the most effective ways to end long-term homelessness.
Washington was one of the first American cities forced to confront homelessness. The late Mitch Snyder, a pioneering local advocate for homeless people who rose to national prominence in the 1980s, led the fight to force the District of Columbia, the federal government, and local houses of worship to confront the crisis. But decades later, the problem is still intractable as ever. Since the pandemic began, the number of chronically homeless peopleindividuals with a physical or mental disability who have been homeless for over a yearhas increased by roughly 20 percent in Washington. The local encampment debate has flared up as the city phases out its eviction moratorium, which means that nearly 400 at-risk families will lose their housing subsidies in the weeks ahead.
In the District of Columbia, both the city and federal government are responsible for encampment clearings. The National Park Service (NPS) has jurisdiction over federal property in Washington, which accounts for nearly 30 percent of the citys total land area. Throughout the summer and fall, NPS has also cleared encampments, sometimes in response to the requests of frustrated residents.
Homeless advocates argue that these policies are ineffective, cruel, and leave some unhoused people without long-term solutions. They want the city to stop the clearings while continuing with the housing and support services part of the pilot program. In an email to the Prospect, Alex Taliadoros, a spokesperson for Councilmember Janeese Lewis George, notes, We have seen these evictions traumatize our unhoused neighbors, destroy their belongings, shatter their trust in government, isolate them from case workers and services, and counterproductively force many to move to other encampments. In early December, Councilmember Brianne Nadeau introduced emergency legislation to prohibit city officials from clearing additional encampments until the spring, but seven of the councils 13 members chose to support the mayors current plan.
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Over the summer, in preparation for the mayors encampment removals, the Districts Department of Health and Human Services created a list of the unhoused residents at each encampment site to ensure that each person displaced by the clearings receives housing options or a homeless shelter placement. As sites are cleared, people can visit an online dashboard to track individuals as they move through the housing process. However, Taliadoros says that the department has missed some individuals, including nearly 20 people from a recently cleared encampment. Because these individuals will not receive the same services as the people actually placed on the list, such as permanent housing subsidy options and expedited access to affordable housing options, local advocates for the unhoused fear that these forgotten few will have no other choice but to set up camps elsewhere in the city.
Charley Willison, an assistant professor of public health at Cornell University, says urban homelessness policy is also a tug-of-war between city officials and certain well-to-do residents who often dominate decision-making on local housing and building projects. Wealthier residents or their representatives are more likely to attend public hearings on these issues and make 311 requests to remove encampments.
These power imbalances often lead city leaders to support the use of aggressive policing tactics, designed to remove homeless people from public view, rather than adopting housing first policies designed to move people into housing. These approaches prioritize giving people long-term housing before addressing other issues such as unemployment, substance abuse disorders, or mental illness. Other strategies may require that homeless people must be employed or sober before they qualify for housing assistance.
Housing-first approaches that were dismissed as radical when they first appeared two decades ago are now considered the most effective ways to end long-term homelessness, according to Christy Respress, executive director of Pathways to Housing DC. Only a few cities like Washington have embraced these policies. The citys 2022 budget boasts a record investment of nearly $170 million to renovate its existing housing and shelter services and create more than 2,500 new permanent housing units for individuals and nearly 600 for families. These programs offer chronically homeless people subsidized housing as well as additional social services that are designed to foster independent living. As more homeless people gain access to these programs, Respress predicts that Washington will see a natural decline in encampments.
Until then, Respress says Bowsers eviction orders just put Washington further down a path of criminalizing people who do not have homes. Nobody wants to sleep in a tent or encampment, Respress says. This is their best choice in a horrible situation: That shows you how bad the choices are.