D.C. officials pilot program to shut down E Street homeless encampment

Media Credit: File Photo by Gabrielle Rhoads | Staff Photographer

Pictured here in November 2020, the E Street homeless encampment is one of three across the District that city officials hope to shut down as part of the program.

D.C. officials have unveiled a pilot program that would shut down three of the city’s major homeless encampments and connect residents to housing, but critics say the plan lacks clarity and thoughtfulness.

The program seeks to provide apartment vouchers to aid residents in finding permanent housing at encampments located along E Street near campus, in NoMa and at New Jersey Avenue and O Street NW before permanently closing the encampments for health and safety reasons. Local advocates have criticized the plan for its lack of details, like the apartments’ quality and location, raising concerns that planned evictions could “criminalize” unhoused residents who decide to remain at their more familiar encampments.

Wayne Turnage, the District’s deputy mayor of health and human services, said city officials hope to house and increase outreach to more than 100 residents of those encampments during a public meeting about the program Wednesday. The program will cost the city about $4 million, according to NBC Washington.

“​​Once we’ve matched those who will accept housing to an acceptable unit, then three of those sites, we know for certain that we will be closing those sites for future encampments,” he said during the meeting. “The primary concern in each of those three sites is public safety and health.”

Several aspects of the program remain unclear based on the limited information that District officials have provided about the apartment units, encampment eviction enforcement and expanded outreach efforts. Some activists worry that the designated no-tent zones that could replace the encampments through the program could criminalize homelessness as information about policy enforcement remains unclear.

Turnage said city officials haven’t completed plans to close and evict residents from the E Street encampment because the District shares jurisdiction over the land with the National Park Service. City officials are collaborating with NPS to begin finalizing the plans for the encampment’s closure, he said.

District officials plan to close down an encampment in NoMa soon as part of the program, permanently clearing homeless people who do not accept housing assistance from the government, DCist reported. The first stage of the program started last month at the NoMa encampments and continued at the two other encampments last week, according to the program flyer.

Turnage said the District will grant priority to encampment residents in D.C.’s waitlists for one-year apartment vouchers. He said city officials anticipate that some residents will initially decline housing offers because of mistrust of government officials, but he hopes an increase in case management outreach will convince them to take advantage of the vouchers.

“I have a belief in my viscera that 90 to 95 percent of them will accept housing, but those who don’t, they will have to move from that encampment site, and hopefully we can work with our outreach team and convince them that they should go into housing,” he said.

Jamal Weldon, the program’s manager within the Deputy Mayor’s Office of Health and Human Services, said at the public meeting that the pilot will help connect encampment residents with housing through an accelerated process instead of the typical waitlist for apartment access.

He said officials decided to remove the three encampments because they’re some of the largest in D.C., with more than 100 residents in total and some of the worst “health and safety risk factors,” like hygiene issues caused by a lack of accessible showers.

“We have looked at this pilot program as an opportunity to house anywhere upwards of 100 residents that are currently living on the streets in these various encampments in less than a 90-day period,” Weldon said.

Weldon rejected criticisms from activists who said the tent bans that officials could enforce through pilot program will criminalize homelessness, saying the decision is necessary to protect the safety of encamped residents and people who live nearby.

“It’s not about criminalizing encamped living, but if there are areas which have been established as high health and safety risk factors to both the encamped residents as well as the community at large, then we at DMHHS are charged with the responsibility of hearing those factors and working on a way to address them in a manner that makes that area safer for all,” he said.

The Deputy Mayor’s Office of Health and Human Services did not return a request for comment.

Yannik Omictin, a member of the Foggy Bottom and West End Advisory Neighborhood Commission whose single member district includes the E Street encampment, said he’s glad officials want to house individuals experiencing homelessness, but the program lacks clarity. He said missing details have made activism and organizing more difficult for local advocates without plans established for housing location and apartment conditions.

“We didn’t know the details of this program until the program was underway, and that to me is not good practice, especially if you’re not reaching out to commissioners in whose single member districts the program will be run,” Omictin said.

Omictin said some encampment residents may be skeptical of accepting housing if details remain unclear, especially if previous city programs have failed to supply them with housing in past years.

“What we’re facing is a system that has failed unhoused people in the past,” Omictin said. “And when a new program is rolled out or a new option is offered, and there’s no clarity on what that what that really means, what it looks like in practice, absolutely it makes unhoused residents feel like they can’t trust it.”

More than 500 people, including Omictin and ANC commissioners Margaret McDonald and Trupti Patel, have signed a letter to D.C. officials, calling on them to end any attempts to create no-tent zones across the District.

Omictin said he doesn’t know what the eviction process could look like for encampment residents whom officials could overlook, and officials have not offered a solution for those situations.

“What if there comes a time when they schedule the encampment eviction, and there are a good amount of people who haven’t been asked, and then they just go forward with eviction?” he said. “Where do those people go? What happens then?”

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