D.C. Government Preparing To Sweep Homeless People Out Of Tent City

CREDIT: Flickr/Devin Smith

A homeless person sleeps near the downtown Washington, D.C. arena where three of the city's professional sports teams play.

With the city’s shelter system already overtaxed, the government of Washington, D.C. is preparing to sweep homeless people out of an informal tent city near the glamorous Kennedy Center arts complex.

Officials aren’t saying when the sweep will take place. But they’re adamant that it’s time to clear the tents out of the grassy area near an underpass where a do-it-yourself community of street dwellers has sprung up over the past year. A 1981 city law bans “temporary abodes” on public land, providing the pretext for the city to relocate people from the site by force if necessary.

The decision comes as the broader homelessness advocacy community is starting to turn away from such aggressive approaches to tent camps. Cities that criminalize homelessness could soon lose some of their federal grant funding for homelessness work. And a key federal taskforce on homelessness recently recommended that communities stop tearing down tent cities, and instead use them as a launchpad for outreach work that can ultimately connect homeless people to permanent supportive housing.

D.C. officials say that sweeping the camp near the Kennedy Center is just the first step in an effort to get people currently sleeping there into permanent housing. In the interim, though, people will be forced to abandon their self-made tent community for either a shelter bed or a motel room far across town.

“We do have a place for everyone indoors. It may be a shelter which many of them don’t want, but our goal would be that would be for a short period of time and then get them permanent housing resources,” Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Brenda Donald told the local ABC affiliate Monday. The city has been sending outreach teams to the camp for months, Donald said, in hopes of persuading residents to voluntarily move into shelter beds or other indoor housing options before the relocation takes place.

Donald’s pledge that the District will find a bed and roof for everyone caught up in the coming relocation is important. Over the past few winters, the number of homeless individuals and families in the nation’s capital has far exceeded the number of shelter beds and private rooms that the city can provide. Washington has a “right to shelter” ordinance that requires the city to make space available to all homeless people on any night cold enough to cause hypothermia. But with shelter spaces full even before winter began in recent years, the city has had to rent out motels and ask courts to bend the rules of that right-to-shelter law just to keep up.

Homelessness activism has changed significantly in recent years. Research and ground-level advocacy work have proven that giving homeless people permanent homes is cheaper than shuffling them between shelters, jails, and hospitals. The tide may be turning away from policies that treat normal homeless-person behaviors as crimes.

But when it comes to the sources of homelessness, the future still looks quite dim. Housing costs in already-expensive cities like Washington are rising far faster than people’s incomes. And developers that could choose to incorporate community needs into their building plans have dollar signs in their eyes instead, pushing for luxury and market-rate housing construction that will maximize their profits. That market behavior exacerbates the homelessness problem both in places like D.C. where developers are largely free to operate as they please, and in communities that have tried to either encourage or require builders to focus on mixed-income projects.