The Way Home Statement on Mayor Bowser’s new approach to homeless encampments

2021-10-04 | , Miriam's Kitchen

Housing ends homelessness. Criminalization does not. 

It is a victory for DC anytime somebody moves from homelessness into housing. As such, we are thrilled to see that residents of several large encampments will be offered housing as part of DC’s new “CARE pilot program”. However, we have significant concerns that the program’s prioritization of select encampments will harm DC’s long-term goal of ending homelessness. More concerning still, the scheduled encampment closures will be followed by the creation of “no camping zones,” which would further criminalize homelessness and push our unhoused neighbors deeper into the margins. We are pleased to see a whole-of-government approach working to urgently end homelessness for encampment residents, and believe this approach must be applied to everyone, not just those living in politically inconvenient encampments. Please keep reading for our full statement.

 

As such, we demand that the DC Government: 

  • Stop the creation of any and all future “no camping zones” and repeal laws that criminalize homelessness or poverty
  • Work with urgency to end homelessness for all who need housing, not just residents of specific encampments 
  • Employ a person-centered and trauma-informed approach to ending homelessness instead of punishing people for living in tents
  • Stop all encampment clearings during COVID-19 in compliance with CDC guidance
  • Work to reform the emergency shelter system to remove real barriers that people living outside have identified as standing in the way of entering shelter 
  • Ensure that all encampments are provided with portable toilets and sanitation stations 

Raise your voice! Sign this petition and tell the DC Council and Deputy Mayor of Human Services to halt the creation of all no camping zones. To learn more about our work to end chronic homelessness, please join The Way Home Campaign

 

 

 

FULL STATEMENT

It is a victory for DC anytime a neighbor moves from homelessness into housing. The Way Home Campaign, including our 110 partner organizations and over 6,000 individual supporters, is motivated by our shared goal of ending homelessness, especially for those who have survived without housing for years. As such, we are thrilled that nearly 100 of our neighbors will move from large encampments into housing over the next several months. However, we have marked concerns about this pilot’s conception, implementation, negative ramifications, and the associated creation of no-camping zones. 

 

Housing ends homelessness

We are guided by the simple truth that housing ends homelessness. Thanks to the investments made in DC’s recent budget, DC is poised to end homelessness for 3,500 households, including 2,370 individuals experiencing chronic homelessness. This means that thousands of our neighbors, including over 1,000 individuals sleeping in shelters, hundreds living in encampments, and many more who live on park benches and outside without tents, will be able to move into housing. This. Is. Huge. While we are thrilled to see a whole-of-government approach working to urgently end homelessness for encampment residents, we believe this approach must be applied to everybody, not just those living in politically inconvenient encampments. 

 

This is more than just a pilot program, it is part of DC’s crackdown on visible homelessness

Throughout the pandemic, the DC government, the National Park Service, and local businesses have continued to close homelessness encampments despite CDC guidance. Viewed together, these continued encampment evictions send a clear message that DC is content to criminalize homelessness and would rather fence off entire parks than allow people to live in tents. This approach to encampments affirms the truth that DC is becoming increasingly hostile toward people living outside. Further displacing people living in encampments is textbook gentrification. Laws and administrative practices criminalizing homelessness and poverty such as the ban on camping in public spaces must be repealed. Until that happens, DC must halt enforcement of these unjust laws.

 

Prioritizing select encampment residents for housing is unfair 

DC is a national leader in targeting scarce housing resources for those who are most likely to die without housing. This pilot program will focus on people living in four large encampments who will effectively jump the line for housing resources, eschewing the communal decisions (including decisions made by people with lived experience of homelessness) and national best practices that underpin our current system. People experiencing homelessness often rightfully mistrust a system that has forced them to live without housing for years. A last-minute end-run around the existing system will only fuel further mistrust and make people less likely to trust providers in the future. Additionally, DC DHS, DMHHS, and key social service agencies are dedicating significant energy, time, and staffing resources to this pilot program that could be better spent ensuring a smooth rollout of new housing resources.

Additionally, it is important to note that only residents at these very specific encampments who made it onto a list compiled during a short period of time are eligible for the housing offered by this pilot. The poor implementation of this program created a false belief that all encampment residents would receive housing. The lack of transparency and communication around this program could engender further mistrust of providers and may harm DC’s ability to end homelessness.

We say NO to “no camping zones”

A central part of the Mayor’s new encampment approach is the creation and enforcement of “no camping zones” after encampment residents are either housed or forcibly removed. These zones do nothing to help end homelessness, and will only worsen the already traumatic experience of homelessness. The forced dispersal of encampments will destroy communities, criminalize homelessness, and push people into different encampments or other hard to locate places, making it difficult to connect them with services. This unprecedented expansion of no camping zones rewards the racially motivated lobbying of intolerant neighbors and sets a precedent for similar efforts across the city. Even more concerning, these no camping zones will be erected just as DC enters hypothermia season when both tents and the communities created in encampments are essential for survival. 

 

Even before COVID, our neighbors living outside made the rational choice to avoid shelters and to instead sleep in tents. People often cite barriers to entering shelter, including having pets or more than two bags; the presence of bugs; the lack of shelter options for opposite-gender partners; and antiquated programmatic rules that restrict autonomy and dignity. Now, during a pandemic where spread increases in indoor and confined spaces, shelters are simply not safe. As DC resumes evictions, as the Delta variant worsens the COVID-19 pandemic, and as DC enters hypothermia season, it is reasonable to assume that more people will enter into homelessness and that many of these people will -- until DC removes these real barriers -- choose to stay in encampments rather than shelters. These rational choices should not be met with fences or fines, but with compassion, and understanding. 

 

Treat our unhoused neighbors with understanding and compassion 

Moving into housing can and should look different for each person. Some people will be eager and excited to engage with the housing process and others may require more time to consider their options, ask questions and ultimately have trust in the system. Creating artificial timelines to displace people may exacerbate mistrust, break connections with service providers, and make it more difficult for them to move into housing. Instead, DC must employ a people-centered approach that places priority on meeting people where they are and working with to achieve housing stability on their own timeline, not one dictated by the government. While this ongoing work happens, all encampments must be provided with sufficient portable restrooms and sanitation stations. 

 

To do this, DC should leverage federal funds to expand PEP-V locations to act as Bridge Housing for willing individuals who are not yet ready or able to move into permanent housing. Utilizing PEP-V for this purpose would provide individuals the opportunity to move into a dignified, safe, and private space where they can maintain relationships with service providers to continue working towards their goals with no or little cost to DC. 

 

Channel this urgency and commitment to end homelessness for all

Despite recent, historic investments in housing to end homelessness, homeless encampments continue to exist and are a direct result of DC’s continued failure to fund low-income housing at scale. Invisibilizing and criminalizing homelessness due to the demands of a vocal minority of DC residents tired of seeing the reality of DC’s homelessness crisis is neither an acceptable nor a humane way to make decisions. DC must leverage the newfound urgency and interagency collaboration harnessed for this pilot program to end homelessness for everybody using DC’s existing systems, not to focus on those in certain encampments. The immense outpouring of support for unhoused residents and the resounding condemnation of this pilot program shows that DC residents are united in our desire to end homelessness through human-centered approaches and without an emphasis on criminalization. To raise your voice against no camping zones, please sign this petition. And to learn more about our work to end chronic homelessness, please The Way Home Campaign.