Homeless people in D.C. jostle before the accelerated evacuation of McPherson Square Park


The next day, the residents of the largest homeless camp in the county learned that they would be Cleared from McPherson Square Two months earlier than expected, D.C. outreach staff and officials on Wednesday were jam-packed To avoid leaving dozens of residents isolated in the cold with nowhere to go.

Of the estimated 70 people in the park, only 15 have been approved to receive housing assistance from the district as of Wednesday morning, according to Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Wayne Turing. Ten more are awaiting approval, Turing said, while the rest “simply refused to deal with our team.”

But residents of McPherson Park, located in the heart of the city’s downtown government and financial sector, said the city’s efforts during the winter months have come off sparsely — so far.

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On Wednesday, about a dozen outreach workers consolidated camp, wrote residents’ information on whiteboards, and walked individuals through the steps needed to apply for housing assistance before the new February 15 deadline. A city-owned, 32-seater bus is located parkside, ready for caseworkers to use as temporary office space. Some residents seem to be listening. The others kept their distance.

For some people experiencing homelessness, previous attempts to get help haven’t left them with much faith in the system. “You’re not going to help us all,” one woman repeatedly shouted at caseworkers Wednesday afternoon, before entering her tent.

Amid the commotion, Shelley Byars, 45, emerged from her own tent in the park’s south corner. Wear thick gloves against the cold wind.

“I’ve been here since June 2022,” she said, pointing to the items — tarps, a bicycle, a cart stacked with bags — grouped around the tent where she slept.

Byars said she lived in Oxon Run Park, in Southeast Washington, before immigrating to McPherson. Although she knew officials were planning to clear the camp downtown, she said she did not know how or when the clearance would take place. Notices announcing the new date were posted throughout the park Monday, but residents kept tearing them up.

“How are we supposed to move all of our belongings?” Byers said. “We don’t camp. We live here.”

The McPherson Square camp, which has grown over the past six months, was scheduled to be evacuated on April 12, once in the capital’s hypothermic season. It has been announced. But Turnage asked the National Park Service, which oversees the park’s grounds, to raise its schedule because of “elevated levels of illegal drugs and other criminal activity” that “impedes access to social services and endangers social service providers, mental health clinicians, unprotected individuals and the public,” According to a letter obtained by The Washington Post.

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In an interview, neither Turing nor Jamal Weldon, who oversees the county’s response to homeless camps for the Turnage department, said they could cite specific examples of camp residents putting service providers or doctors at risk. But Weldon said he had received reports from outreach staff of “hostile engagements” in the park and that the US Parks Police had also noted “safety issues” during their routine patrols of the area.

An accelerated approach to removing unhoused residents from McPherson fails to address issues cited by on-site officials, such as property crime, drug abuse and unsanitary conditions, said Jesse Rabinowitz, senior director of policy and advocacy for homeless outreach organization Miriam’s Kitchen. .

We don’t solve the root of any of these problems; “We’re just forcing them to move somewhere else,” Rabinowitz said. “Why are camp evacuations the only solution we’ve ever used?”

Many of the people who live in McPherson Square only moved there after being kicked out from the other camps. Daniel Kingry, who has lived in the park since April 2020, said he can track the closures of D.C. camps when the population swells in McPherson. Kingry said the first big wave came in June 2020, when D.C. officials Close Franklin Square For renovations – and displaced homeless population who have taken refuge there. With every camping sweep NoMaon me New Jersey Streetthe outside Union Square – More people were walking into McPherson Square and setting up camp.

Kingry, who said he was a former Marine, began living at McPherson after being evicted from nearby Lafayette Square, protesting against the government day and night until April 2020, when the US Secret Service ordered him to evacuate. He refused and was arrested and ordered to stay away.

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“People think of McPherson as the camp of last resort,” Rabinowitz said. There are people living there and this will be a fourth or fifth eviction. People are being thrown around town, pushed from one place to another, which is indicative of what we’ve been saying for years, which is that closed camps don’t solve homelessness.”

Turnage acknowledged that camp closures lead to displacement.

“We try to avoid that as much as possible by offering a range of services,” he said, noting that D.C. has several shelters for homeless adults and will put voucher recipients in a hotel. while they are awaiting placement for housing. “This does not change the fact that some [encampment residents] You will simply move on.”

Turing said the county will spend the next two weeks making an “urgent effort” to convince the 50 or so residents to accept government assistance, seek shelter in a low-barrier city facility, or leave the area before Feb. 15.

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Kingry, 61, who resides under a large beach canopy in the southwest corner of the park, said there had been little government outreach and police intervention at the camp before this week, even as residents themselves called for help. He derided Wednesday’s conspicuously intense efforts as “one big show”.

“It’s all there is to make it look like they’re doing something when they’re just shuffling people from one park to the next,” Kingry said.

On Wednesday, Byars said, an outreach worker stopped by her tent to provide information about her options. But Pierce was distrustful. She said the city approved her for a housing voucher in July, but no one helped her find a place to stay.

Turnage blamed it Accumulation of housing vouchers and services in the event of an ongoing shortage of social workers that has hampered the city’s ability to make a meaningful impact on the homelessness crisis.

“There are enough vouchers to basically eliminate homelessness in this city,” Turing said. “The problem is you have to have the units available to accommodate those vouchers and case managers available to work with those populations, particularly those who are facing challenges, to make sure they get the comprehensive services they need so that the placements don’t collapse into failure.” “

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For the unhoused residents of McPherson Square, the sight of more government employees on Wednesday did little to raise their hopes.

Kingry — whose ongoing protest requires him to be in close proximity to the White House — said he wasn’t sure what he would do if the park was forcibly closed in two weeks. He said he couldn’t go back to Lafayette Square. Franklin Square, a block from McPherson, was designated a no-go area for camping. As the area closes down more sites, the options dwindle.

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