The D.C. Council must pass emergency legislation to stop further homeless encampment clearings and closings this winter

The D.C. Council must pass emergency legislation to stop further homeless encampment clearings and closings this winter

The longest night of the year, December 21, is Homeless Persons Memorial Day, when communities nationwide come together to remember those who have died while experiencing homelessness. On that same day, the D.C. Council will vote on whether to pass emergency legislation to suspend encampment evictions and the establishment of “no camping zones” during the winter and instead focus District resources on providing encampment residents with housing and other health and safety supports. This vote is a life-or-death matter for thousands of unhoused people across the District.

The District usually pauses its clearing of homeless encampments during hypothermia season because displacing people and taking away their tents exposes them to dangerously cold weather that could mean losing limbs to frostbite or even dying from hypothermia. In addition, these clearings push people into smaller encampments in hard-to-locate places and make it difficult to connect them with housing, blankets during freezing cold weather, and other support services. However, despite the real risk to people's lives, Mayor Bowser is scheduling and clearing homeless communities late in the year, with the next clearing planned for December 21.

While Mayor Bowser’s Coordinated Assistance and Resources for Encampments (CARE) pilot program says they connect encampment residents to housing and other support services, the government is not doing so before evicting many encampment residents destroying their belongings in the process. The District's resources to clear these encampments would be better going towards services that can address homelessness long term.

There’s also been a heavy police presence during these encampment evictions. Qaadir El-Amin, an organizer for unhoused people for five years, saw 20 police officers sent to clear a small encampment. Using District resources to further displace, intimidate, and harass unhoused residents will only contribute to the criminalization of homelessness while doing nothing to solve the crisis. This type of police response also goes against the common sense recommendations of the D.C. Police Reform Commission to limit police interactions with community members experiencing homelessness and instead focus resources on meeting their housing needs.

The District and Mayor Bowser should examine and reform the system that has left many unhoused people from accessing resources. Currently, people experiencing homelessness face barriers to entering D.C. shelters, such as not being able to enter if they have pets, have more than two bags, or are with opposite-gender partners. In addition, the communal nature of most District shelters has led many to avoid them for fear of contracting COVID-19. And housing is exponentially less attainable. When El-Amin talks to unhoused people, they often share how their mental health suffers from being stuck waiting for housing and navigating the system. Many people in large encampments have received some government support, but those in smaller, less visible encampments have received very little. According to El-Amin, many have jobs but aren’t paid enough to survive. The thought of being evicted once they can’t make rent deters them from seeking permanent housing at all. Leaving the encampment communities means isolation from their family, friends, and support network.

The CARE pilot program also raises constitutional concerns. The Fifth Amendment requires that the government not deprive people of property without due process of law. Yet, by establishing "no camping zones,” the Bowser administration is creating zones of public land subject to immediate dispossession with no notice, no right to appeal or challenge the decision, and no proof that the government has any special concerns for their property. This threatens the rights and liberties of unhoused D.C. residents.

We know the long-term solution to homelessness is housing. For that to happen, D.C. must stop clearing encampments and evicting residents and instead focus on connecting unhoused people with the services they need to thrive. The D.C. Council will vote on emergency legislation introduced by Councilmember Brianne Nadeau that will do just that. Reach out to your Council members ahead of the vote to support this legislation.

Note: Qaadir El-Amin is the founder of A Right to Life, and part of the People for Fairness Coalition and Ward 2 & 6 Mutual Aid