In this 2019 file photo of the homeless encampments in NoMa, tents are seen still standing. However, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s pilot program to address homelessness will remove the encampments many unhoused residents rely on daily. (Photo by Micha Green)

By Aysia Morton
Special to the AFRO

As the winter arrives, many unhoused residents will be fighting cold weather. Right now there are at least 5,111 people experiencing homelessness in Washington, D.C. Out of those more than five thousand, 681 of them are sleeping unsheltered, outside among the elements—a 4.3 percent increase from 2020. However, the deadline for residents to live in homeless encampments around the District is Dec. 2.

For multiple years now, the city has been working to clear homeless encampments. Most notably, an attempt to clear the unhoused was made in 2019 when some residents of the neighborhood north of Massachusetts avenue, NoMa, submitted complaints to the NoMa Business Improvement District (BID) of being “worried about their ability to safely traverse these public spaces,” due to the homeless encampments. Since then, and the uproar that followed, homeless encampments have been cleared for purposes ranging from street eateries to art installations and are known to be executed by police. WJLA-7, the local ABC affiliate, has news footage showing heavy police presence at the encampment located at L & 2nd Streets N.E. In one instance, officers can be seen dragging a woman out the encampment by her arms.

As a solution, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office launched the Coordinated Assistance and Resources for Encampments (CARE) Pilot Program – a program aimed at permanently closing three homeless encampment locations: NoMa (L/M St N.E. Underpasses), New Jersey Avenue and O Street N.W. and 20th/21st and E Streets. N.W., by providing unhoused residents with intensive support and relocating them to affordable housing. But in NoMa, one of the City’s most gentrified neighborhoods, encampment clearings were put on pause after an unhoused resident was injured during the pilot program- when a bulldozer picked up a tent they were still occupying. After the clearing drama with harm to residents, and pleas from homelessness advocates around the District, the deadline for clearing encampments was moved to Dec. 2.

The Mayor’s pilot program was met with criticism from many D.C. residents. “Mayor Bowser’s program combines a focus on housing, which is the solution to homelessness, with really harmful additions like the increased criminalization of homelessness, the displacement of homeless encampments and the eviction and permanent closure of house homelessness,” said Ward 1 resident Jessie Rabinowitz from Miriam’s Kitchen.

D.C. Council members also voiced their concerns about the pilot program and its clearing of homeless encampments during hypothermia season, beginning on Dec. 2. Ward 1 Council member Brianne Nadeau posted a letter on Twitter calling on Mayor Bowser to pause homeless encampment clearings until the end of hypothermia season, which ends on March 31. Council members Janeese Lewis-George, Robert White and Elissa Silverman also signed the letter. The Council members stated that they believe while the pilot program is, “ well-intentioned, we have concerns about its execution.”  They also cited that clearing homeless encampments during a public health emergency, such as a pandemic, does not align with CDC guidance.

When asked what he thought about the letter, Rabinowitz said that he was grateful to see that these Council members are leading the charge to end the clearing of homeless encampments during hypothermia season and hopes that more Council members join their call. He went on to say that one thing we wanted to underscore is that, “this is not a choice between homeless people having housing or tents.” 

“Come Thursday (Dec. 2), the things that keep unhoused people safe from the elements are going to be destroyed and cleared out by the D.C government. I want everyone to have housing right now, but If everyone is not moved into housing by the time these encampments are cleared, they need to be allowed to stay in tents and in communities that best meet their needs,” Rabinowitz said.

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