To combat COVID-19, D.C. must stop clearing homeless encampments

We see and walk by people experiencing homelessness every day. And during a pandemic, it’s more important than ever that we help them, not ignore them.

COVID-19 is hitting everyone hard – students are struggling with online school, businesses are limiting their reopening, thousands of Americans are unemployed and more than 200,000 Americans have died. Amid reopening businesses in the District, reimposed restrictions and political unrest, D.C.’s homeless population has been overlooked and cast aside. So much so that the District is continuing to clear away homeless encampments, leaving the most vulnerable among us to increase their risk of getting sick.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised cities at the start of the pandemic that they should not execute encampment cleanups because it could increase the spread of the virus. It makes sense – those without a roof over their head look to a place like an encampment for shelter and community. But the District is continuing this practice and ignoring CDC guidance. Clearing away the place they call home and sending people to homeless shelters instead ignores the realities of the pandemic – that people need to stick in small circles and minimize travel. But the D.C. government is prioritizing the way the city looks over the quality of human lives.

The D.C. area reported a record number of COVID-19 cases this past week. This surge of cases follows a national trend that has resulted in an 80 percent increase of new cases, landing us at 11 million cases of COVID-19 in the United States. This pandemic does not discriminate who it infects and who it impacts, but what this pandemic does do is infect those who are at risk, do not engage in social distancing, do not self-isolate and do not have the ability to get regular tests. In this case, all eyes point to people experiencing homelessness.

D.C.’s homeless population deserve better than to be cleared from their homes in the middle of a pandemic and forced to relocate, exposing themselves to the virus in the process. The city needs to stop clearing encampments and follow the CDC’s guidelines – it will save lives.

The motive behind these cleanups is to keep the city’s streets and sidewalks clear. Residents complain about the encampments – that is no secret – but it’s alarming that the city government is giving in to these complaints during a major health crisis. There is no point in cleaning sidewalks and grassy areas if as a result, large amounts of the city are sick and dying of this highly infectious disease.

The city has taken some steps to help this vulnerable population during the pandemic. Officials installed precautionary items like hand washing stations and port-a-potties near encampments. They also provided several quarantine areas in contracted hotels around the city to protect those who are medically vulnerable. But officials cannot claim to be helping people experiencing homelessness if they continue to clean up a place they call home and find relative safety. Plus, some of the city’s programs have been criticized for a lack of organization and insensitivity toward people living there. For D.C., though, it’s all about optics.

Even when we’re not in a pandemic, these cleanups are damaging and dangerous for those experiencing homelessness. Residents are forced to gather all their belongings, leave the community in their encampment and face new challenges in an unfamiliar area. But the pandemic has turned these cleanups from damaging to outright deadly.

Treating those experiencing homelessness with compassion and care is not something new to major cities like D.C. Even Los Angeles, with an unsheltered homeless population of about 27,000, has halted encampment cleanups, changed their policies on when tents can be erected and have provided hand washing stations, portable toilets, dumpsters, vermin-proof trash cans and shower services. That’s humane – what D.C. is doing is not.

If you do not have a home to quarantine in, you cannot isolate yourself, you cannot engage in proper social distancing and your chances of contracting COVID-19 are ridiculously high. Encampments are people’s only space to stay within a “hub” – or a community of people where the threat of contracting the virus is relatively low. The D.C. government must protect that and ensure its homeless population has the resources they need to withstand the pandemic.

Hannah Thacker, a junior majoring in political communication, is the opinions editor.

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