Stop the encampment clearings, now

The People For Fairness Coalition is a grassroots advocacy and direct service organization with the unique perspective of people who have experienced housing instability. Our core mission is convening D.C.’s Universal Right to Housing Campaign, which seeks to codify a basic housing right for long-term District of Columbia residents, as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

As representatives of the PFFC, we acknowledge there are significant community concerns regarding encamped residents all across the city. However, it is unconscionable that two weeks ago, a resident was faced with a very dangerous situation involving the D.C. Coordinated Access and Resources for Encampments pilot program. While clearing an encampment under an overpass in NoMa, a construction vehicle picked up his tent while he was sleeping inside. Thankfully, he escaped injury, but the next victim of these clearings might not. 

The city had months to get this operation together. Every resident should have known where they were going when the date arrived, but they didn’t. Had there been a better public process, we would have had clear understanding and recommendations from some of the unhoused residents who actually live in these affected areas. Instead, there was confusion and fear. 

For the last year and half, the PFFC and local mutual aid groups have been serving these areas with personal protective equipment, and we have expanded our mentoring services to other areas where tent-clearing operations are planned. Now, PFFC and our partners Serve Your City Ward 6 Mutual Aid, The Unhoused Collective, The Way Home Campaign, and The Greater Washington Community Foundation are calling for an end to encampment closings until adequate housing is identified for each and every encampment resident and until the end of hypothermia season. 

Halting these closures will allow D.C. to adhere to the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions’ guidance regarding unsheltered persons during the Covid-19 pandemic, considering that outdoor living can sometimes be safer than crowded shelters. “If individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are,” the agency’s website says, noting that clearing encampments can scatter residents to other parts of the city and break connections with service providers. 

So far, the D.C. government hasn’t identified how unhoused residents will access the 17,614 vacant rental units in the city, which is up from 10,507 just two years ago. That’s why we created and supported the Vacant to Virus-Reduction Plan, which proposes to create a database of available apartments that the city can pay for in order to provide safe, adequate and stable housing for every unhoused D.C. resident.

At a hearing on The District of Columbia Human Rights Enhancement Act of 2021, At-Large Council Member Robert White recognized our concerns, and supports stopping the encampment closures at this time and to revisiting the C.A.R.E. program protocols. “I’m calling on DM Turnage @DMHHS to pause homeless encampment clearings,” Councilmember White wrote on Twitter. “We all want residents to be in safe housing, but the goal should be to do this right, not just to do it fast. We must afford all residents the dignity they deserve. Let’s focus on getting people housed.” 

We want to make sure residents have their due process and that their rights are being respected. That’s the dilemma right now: trying to figure out where people will be relocated, and then making sure we’re able to give the same types of direct service and support that we have given every week since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. Providing weekly check-ins with our unhoused citizens is the best method to ensure that they are engaging the system and are on the path to housing — not forcing them out with bulldozers. 

Reginald Black, Robert Warren, Queenie Featherstone, and Andrew Anderson are members of the People for Fairness Coalition. They are also all Street Sense Media vendors.

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We believe ending homelessness begins with listening to the stories of those who have experienced it.