Oct 17, 2022 - News

D.C.'s homeless encampment plan, 1 year later

Illustration of row houses masked by the shape of Washington D.C.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

A year after D.C. launched a pilot program to clear homeless encampments, approximately 72% of those in the pilot have been housed.

Why it matters: The CARE program – which prompted an outcry when a Bobcat removing tents at one encampment lifted a man inside a tentdivided the city when it was introduced last fall.

  • Bowser administration officials heralded the program as a housing-first approach, but some advocates for people experiencing homelessness criticized it for merely shuffling them to new encampments.

Catch up quick: The program focused on four of the largest encampments — and offered some residents one-year leases with the intention of moving them into permanent housing.

By the numbers: Among the four sites, 100 of the 139 eligible people received leases, according to Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Wayne Turnage. The remaining 39 either opted out of the pilot, no longer reside at the encampment, or are still working with outreach to find housing.

Zoom in: Residents were moved from the streets to housing in 86 fewer days on average compared to the city’s normal process, Turnage tells Axios.

Between the lines: Only residents who had been on a list of individuals waiting for housing were offered leases, so the pilot did not account for everyone living within these encampments.

What they’re saying: Christina Giles, 43, lived in a tent for over two years after leaving her marriage. She tells Axios that through the pilot she found a transitional apartment and then learned she qualified for Section 8 housing and was able to re-sign her lease and stay in her apartment.

Previously, “I always thought in survival mode,” she says.

  • But now, with rent and utilities paid for, she says she plans to grow her natural cosmetics business and spend more time with her grandchildren.

Yes, but: With leases for those in transitional housing expiring in one year, the move into permanent housing has been slow, Adam Rocap, deputy director at Miriam’s Kitchen, one of the two housing providers in the program, tells Axios.

Turnage tells Axios that most people within the encampments meet the eligibility criteria for permanent housing and that people not yet transitioned into it will be funded with local money.

What's next: With the program ending, the city is weighing whether to extend it.

Turnage says if officials go ahead, they would consider the use of hotels as intermediaries to help get people off the streets even faster in a future program.

  • The city says it also wants to be more intentional about pairing people with options that best meet their needs, such as housing with on-site support staff.

The big picture: As for the controversial tent clearings and encampment closures, Turnage tells Axios that the city will defend them in a forthcoming report by the deputy mayor’s office.

  • Clearing tents is defensible for health and safety reasons, not to mention city laws against blocking public spaces, Turnage says.

The other side: Miriam’s Kitchen and Pathways to Housing DC, the CARE housing contractors, tell Axios that they oppose permanently closing encampments because it can be traumatizing for residents. It also creates an arbitrary deadline for finding housing before their tent is cleared.

  • One NoMa encampment resident told Axios last year that they weren’t comfortable accepting housing from the city due to a lack of trust as a clearing took place.

Another wrinkle: Two of the four sites in the pilot weren’t actually closed since they were on federal land. Meanwhile, about half of the residents housed came from those two sites. That’s an example of success without clearing tents, Rocap, of Miriam’s Kitchen, tells Axios.

Zoom out: Pathways to Housing’s executive director Christy Respress wants to see more flexibility in signing people up for such a program. Previously, outreach workers visited encampments to add residents to the eligibility list, but some residents who were out slipped through the cracks.

  • Respress also wants people to be given more time to choose where to move without a looming encampment closure.

Reginald Black, advocacy director for the People for Fairness Coalition which is made up of people formerly and currently experiencing homelessness, says any future version of the pilot should be overseen by entities like the Interagency Council on Homelessness — which would include voices of unhoused people, advocates, and other policymakers.

  • “There are a number of work groups and committees that should be involved in taking a look at it and help employ the best strategies possible,” Black says.

This article is part of the 2022 Homeless Crisis Reporting Project, in collaboration with Street Sense Media and other local newsrooms. More reporting has been published at HomelessCrisis.press.


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