The National Parks Service (NPS) will close an encampment at McPherson Square on Feb. 15 at the request of D.C., two months earlier than planned.
NPS officials estimate more than 70 people currently live at the encampment, which has grown in recent months amid closures of smaller sites by the city and federal government. NPS initially intended to close and fence off McPherson Square by April 12, giving D.C. government and service providers six months to connect residents to housing after NPS announced the closure in October. The housing process for eligible residents can easily take up to nine months.
However, according to a letter sent by NPS Superintendent Jeffrey Reinbold on Jan. 27, and obtained by Street Sense Media, D.C.’s Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services (DMHHS) requested in early January that NPS close the encampment on Feb. 1. The District argued that “high levels of illegal drug activity and other dangerous and unsafe activities significantly impede social services outreach and endanger social services providers.”
According to Reinbold’s letter, the decision to close the encampment sooner was based on reports from service providers they felt unsafe working at McPherson Square and could not provide outreach to the large number of residents occupying the space. But after the Washington Post first reported the date change, several social workers pushed back on that claim via social media, arguing that the closure will make ending homelessness harder since it will scatter residents across the city and disconnect them from their case managers.
NPS relies on D.C. and its contracted service providers to house people living at encampments ahead of closures. According to NPS, DMHHS has said the new closure date “will not substantially impact the ongoing efforts to move unsheltered individuals into permanent housing,” and that “an additional month of engagement will not result in a meaningful increase in the number of individuals moved into housing.” The letter also says many residents have refused outreach attempts.
However, residents at McPherson Square consistently told Street Sense Media over the last three months that they rarely see outreach workers, and have no plans for where to go after NPS closes the park. In fact, the overwhelming majority of residents have not been connected to housing vouchers, according to Jesse Rabinowitz, senior manager of policy and advocacy at Miriam’s Kitchen. Some residents of McPherson Square have already moved four or five times, Rabinowitz said.
One man living in the park, who gave his name as Moon, said he’s only been approached about housing once, and no one has helped him apply for a voucher. While he knows shelter overflow sites are available, as Reinbold’s letter points out, he said he’s been repeatedly assaulted in shelters.
The new closure date means people residing in McPherson Square will be forced to search for new places to stay during hypothermia season. Both D.C. and NPS follow encampment engagement guidelines that only allow for encampments to be cleared in the coldest months in cases of imminent health and safety concerns.
According to NPS, there’s been an increase in crime at McPherson Square in the last month. Reinbold attributed that rise to individuals who moved to McPherson Square from the Scott Circle encampment, which NPS closed in December.
McPherson Square has become a default destination for many people living outside as D.C and the federal government resumed encampment closures after a pause during the pandemic. Since March, D.C. has closed nine encampments, and NPS has closed five. NPS plans to close all encampments on federal land by the end of 2023. D.C. plans to conduct cleanings at another five encampments in the next two weeks, though none will be closed.