Feb 6, 2023 - News

D.C. prepares to clear McPherson Square encampment

Of the encampment's roughly 70 residents, 15 have been matched with housing options. Photo: Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Unhoused people and social service providers are searching for options after the National Park Service pushed up by several months a planned clearing of one of D.C.’s largest homeless encampments.

Why it matters: The expedited clearing of McPherson Square follows a pattern of recent encampment clearings by both local and federal officials. Citywide efforts to close encampments and house people permanently have seen limited success, creating a snowball effect of residents simply moving from one cleared camp to another.

  • Worth noting: McPherson is on federal land which means NPS is in charge of clearing it but must rely on D.C. to provide aid, such as housing vouchers.

Catch up quick: NPS moved its planned clearing of McPherson Square from mid-April to Feb. 15 at the request of D.C.’s deputy mayor for Health and Human Services, per a letter sent to D.C. officials that Axios reviewed. That letter cited “high levels of illegal drug and other criminal activity” that prevent social workers from meeting with residents, as a reason for moving the clearing up.

  • That letter also highlighted D.C.'s recent closure of an encampment at Scott Circle which led to an increase in residents at the McPherson encampment.

Yes, but: In an interview with the Washington Post, D.C. officials could not "cite specific examples of encampment residents endangering service providers or clinicians."

  • Christy Respress, of Pathways to Housing DC, an organization that provides housing resources, tells Axios that caseworkers with Pathways haven’t had any safety issues at McPherson.

State of play: Of the encampment's roughly 70 residents, 15 have been matched with housing options but haven't yet moved in, and about 50 people have not engaged with the city's housing services, per officials.

  • The housing process can be long and tenuous. In fiscal year 2022, D.C. funded 2,400 vouchers but used only a quarter of them, Street Sense reported.

What they're saying: In a video published last Thursday, At-Large D.C. council member Robert White said that he visited McPherson to speak with residents who have been waiting years for housing and have been forced out of other encampments. “People do not believe the government is here to help,” White said.

Respress tells Axios that most people at the encampment have at some point engaged with housing services, including at past encampment sites, but wait times may have left them mistrustful of government help.

  • “They're frustrated. There are definitely a number of people who are not engaging, meaning they're not interested in talking, but that doesn't tell us that they're not interested in housing,” says Respress.

Umi, a 27-year-old who has lived in the McPherson encampment since the Franklin Square encampment was closed in 2020, tells Axios that she didn’t see D.C. caseworkers visiting residents to offer housing resources until Feb. 1, though Respress says Pathways has been out daily.

  • Umi agrees that encampment closures, paired with long waits for housing, are causing a snowball effect. She, too, plans to move to another encampment soon.

What’s next: DMHHS says that caseworkers will be at McPherson to talk with residents and distribute hypothermia supplies on Wednesday and again on Feb. 13.


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