Are the Homeless DC Residents? Do Encampments Threaten Children?

Encampments Near Garfield Park Spark Heated Discussion at ANC 6B

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Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services (DMHHS) representatives Monica Merk and Jessica Smith speak at the February meeting of ANC 6B.l. Commissioner Kirsten Oldenburg (6B04) is visible in background.

At the Feb. 11th meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6B (ANC), a commissioner questioned whether District agencies are providing enough incentive to get homeless people off the street. Then, she asked rhetorically whether homeless individuals could be even considered District residents.

“If you look at DC Law, they are not considered DC residents,” Commissioner Jennifer Samolyk (6B01) said. “So please don’t call them residents. Please don’t call them my most vulnerable neighbors, either.”

The remarks during the commission’s discussion about a cluster of encampments abutting the I-695 overpass located near Garfield Park prompted by a flurry of constituent emails. In particular, one complaint reported a man defecating on the sidewalk in front of a child. The city had cleared the encampment earlier in the day.

At Samolyk’s invitation, representatives of the Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services (DMHHS) representatives were in attendance. Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen (D) also appeared.

Encampment Protocol

DMHHS representatives Monica Merk and Jessica Smith said that no bio hazards had been found during the encampment clean-up. Residents of the camp had removed belongings and bagged trash prior to their arrival, they said.

Briefing the commission on encampment protocol, Smith and Merk explained that the procedure and timeline is dictated by federal law. An unannounced clean-up can only take place if there is an immediate health and safety risk, they said. For example, if an open flame is observed or a sidewalk is blocked to wheelchairs.

When reports of encampments are received, a DMHHS outreach team first visits and assesses the site. They attempt to connect occupants with social services. If the city makes a decision to clear a site, it is a legal requirement that notice of the action be physically posted there two weeks’ prior.

DMHHS cannot clear encampments during rain, the night after or morning of a hypothermia alert, they stated, since doing so would expose occupants to dangerous weather conditions.

Enabling the Encampments?

The District is currently engaged in a lawsuit related to encampment clean-ups, government representatives stated. Other cities, including Seattle and Los Angeles, they pointed out, have also been sued for collecting and disposing of unattended property.

“I know that people can be frustrated by how our protocol works, but we’re actually seen as one of the best and most effective jurisdictions in the country for responding to encampments,” Smith said.

“Honestly, what I’m hearing is DC does great job enabling these encampments,” Samolyk said in response to the presentation. “You do a fantastic job doing that. And that because of a lawsuit, we’re not willing to take any restrictive actions,” she added.

A resident asked Councilmember Allen, what action could be taken to protect children like her own, who play in Garfield Park near one of the encampments.

“I think it is absolutely outrageous that we don’t have any protection for our children. That is way too close to have an encampment right there, where they all play. You’re telling me that you provide all these different protections, and all these different services [for homeless people], but you can’t do anything for our kids?” the resident said. She suggested that legislation be enacted forbidding encampments a minimum distance from schools and playgrounds.

Risk

Allen asked the resident how the children were at risk, and said that proximity alone is not a justification for legislation.

“If we thought that that was the right approach, the moment that we passed it we would be sued–-straight to the courts,” Allen said, adding that such litigation could further impair the ability of DMHHS to address the issue at all.

No criminal behavior had been detected in the encampment, Allen stated. If illegal activity was happening, he advised residents to call police. He asked neighbors to really identify the precise risk they perceived to their children, saying that it must be identified and understood to ensure the appropriate response.

Reached after the meeting, Metropolitan Police Department First District Commander Morgan Kane confirmed Allen’s assertion. Kane stated that neither she nor her officers had observed any illegal behavior on their rounds of the underpass encampments. “We don’t have any evidence of criminal activity at this point,” Kane said, adding that residents who may observe criminal activity should call 911.

At the meeting, Allen added that he was uncomfortable with some of the ways that homelessness was described at the meeting. Noting that this was a national problem, he pointed out that there are myriad reasons why a person might become homeless.

“To say that the fact that someone is experiencing this in their life right now, that that somehow makes that person inherently a risk to children–I want to be very careful with that,” Allen said.

Allen said the District was in a better position with respect to encampments than some other cities, many of which do not provide outreach services. He added that not providing services would actually make the situation worse. He encouraged people with concerns about homelessness to come to upcoming budget hearings and forums to advocate for increased funding for housing and homelessness services.

A Real Crisis

Karen Cunningham is the executive director of Everyone Home DC, a Hill-based nonprofit working to pursue solutions to homelessness. Interviewed after the meeting, she said the assumption that people living on the streets are dangerous is a misconception and furthermore, dangerous. “People who are homeless are homeless not because of personal failures, but because of system failures,” Cunningham said. “We should be addressing these failures, rather than trying to deal with the people as though they are threats to the community.”

Cunningham added that the idea that homeless people are not legal residents is absolutely not true. “The people that are experiencing homelessness and living outdoors are largely people whose families have lived in the District for many generations,” she said. “Most likely longer than the people objecting to their presence.”

If people are concerned about homelessness in any form, Cunningham said echoing Allen’s comments, they ought to be advocating to encourage the District to invest in the homeless service system and in very low-income housing. She would like to see people show as much concern for the people living outdoors as they are for the discomfort they may have at seeing them there, she added.

“People are over-reacting to a perceived threat,” Cunningham said, “and under-reacting to a real crisis in homelessness and housing.”