Jurisdiction Impedes Aid for Encampments

Residents Left Unsure as Federal and District Agencies Clear Sites

An NPS employee removes contents from an encampment tent, Friday, Oct. 15. Photo: E. O’Gorek/CCN

David Graves and the other residents of an encampment on a triangle park at Third and Massachusetts Avenue NE were still debating their next move the day before they were evicted, Oct. 15. “We don’t know what to do,” Graves said. “Everybody that comes here asks us what we’re going to do. And we’re asking them, what are you doing?”

Graves moved to the encampment with two friends in August, when the National Park Service (NPS) evicted them from the triangle park a block away, citing tree remediation. That area is now empty and surrounded by a chainlink fence. A similar fence was already up on Thursday around the encampment where he lived.

David Graves stands in front of his tent at the Third Street and Massachusetts Avenue NE encampment, Thursday, Oct. 14. Photo: E. O’Gorek/CCN

“I guess all the parks are just going to look like this,” Graves said. “I don’t know where they keep pushing us.”

Like many American cities, the District has experienced an increase in the number of encampments over the last few years. Unlike other jurisdictions, however, the spaces occupied by these encampments are regulated by multiple agencies, including Capitol Hill Police, NPS and the District Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services.

Critics say the multiple agencies responsible for these parcels of land makes it unclear who has the responsibility to help the people living there. As a result, they say, nobody does.

Whose Responsibility?

Camping on public space is illegal in the District, but the Office of the Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services (DMHHS), which is responsible for encampments, says it is not city policy to arrest or cite campers. They do periodic clearings of a site when it presents a security, health or safety risk or interferes with community use of the spaces.

Victar Parker uses a wheelchair to move items from the encampment, Friday, Oct. 15. Photo: E. O’Gorek/CCN

DMHHS is required to give two-weeks’ notice prior to these cleanups. In the meantime, DMHHS, the Department of Behavioral Health (DBH) and contracted providers are supposed to conduct outreach to connect encampment residents with services and programs.

But the District does not have jurisdiction over all the public spaces. The site at Third and Massachusetts, for instance, is under the jurisdiction of NPS. According to NPS, it evaluates each park individually and removes encampments when it determines that a site poses a significant and continuing security, health or safety risk. In the case of the Third and Massachusetts encampment, officials on site said there were fire hazards posed by a generator and grills as well as complaints about trash and cleanliness from neighbors and area businesses.

The park service lacks homelessness outreach programs or services. A representative said NPS is “committed to taking a social services-first approach and will continue to work closely with DMHHS and community partners to connect people living in encampments with resources and housing.”

Graves said nobody had approached him or the two friends he lives with about the Thursday removal date. “They put that sign up there two days ago,” Graves said. “We asked them what was going on, and he was like, ‘Well I just work for the parks department.’ He couldn’t explain it.”

Outreach Director for People for Fairness Coaliti on (PFFC) Andrew Anderson stands outside the fence during the removal of the encampment by the Nati onal Park Service (NPS). E.O’Gorek/CCN

On Thursday morning, reporters and advocates watched an NPS employee post signs announcing the encampment clearing had been moved to Friday. He attached them to the fence, then returned to his truck and drove away.

Where to Go Next

Andrew Anderson is the outreach director for the People for Fairness Coalition (PFFC). He said the organization had helped many of the residents relocate Thursday night, before the clearing took place, some moved to the encampments under I-695 near Garfield Park. Others are heading to the encampments at Allen Park at O Street and New Jersey Avenue NW and the area of E Street near 21st and 22nd streets NW.

However, those two encampments are also slated for dispersal as part of a District pilot program. The Allen Park site is scheduled to be removed by Thursday, Nov. 4.

The pilot program, which focuses on those two sites and the NoMA encampments at L and M streets, provided expedited access to housing and services for all who were residents of the sites as of Aug. 23. Once cleared, the sites will become “no encampment zones.” The change allows DMHHS and District agencies to remove items from the site within a day, without the two-week notice otherwise required.

That means that if Graves and his friends go to either of those sites, they will be ineligible for the pilot program but will still be evicted.

Anderson said that neither NPS nor the District are worried about where the residents will live. “They’re not concerned about relocation, [it’s] just ‘get them out of the way, because we don’t want to deal with the problem anymore,’” he said.

Need for Coordinated Strategy

At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman (I) was on site for the Massachusetts Avenue encampment clearing. She said that while NPS has kept the DC Council informed of activities on the site, she would like more coordination with the city.

“These are District residents, and this is a complex issue,” she said. “Complex issues involve putting all our heads together and being strategic and really coming up with solutions. We need to have a strategy so we’re not just moving people around the city.” Silverman said that DMHHS should take the initiative to reach out to NPS and contracted outreach partners to work on such a strategy.

In an emailed statement, DMHHS said its outreach team had worked with NPS to inform residents of the impending closure. “We continue to work with NPS regularly to learn of any closures in advance so that we can properly engage the encamped residents beforehand,” read the statement, “and encourage all encamped residents to utilize District shelter options and to regularly engage in outreach provider service connection efforts. We know that many of the residents have relocated to other areas of the city and our providers will continue to support them along their journey towards independence and housing stability.”

PFFC’s Anderson said he was judging the support from District agencies and their contracted outreach organizations by their presence. “They haven’t been here,” Anderson said. “If they have, it’s been one or two agents coming out to do any kind of information collection.”

He said the city needs to invest more money in homelessness support services so that, months ago, agents could have come to the encampment to make sure each resident had filled out applications for permanent housing. He pointed out that the process to obtain a housing voucher can take five to eight months.

“You don’t see that,” Anderson said. “Nobody from DMHHS is here, nobody from DCHA is here; nobody from Pathways is here. There’s no point in providing a solution except eviction ‒ that’s what you get.”

On Thursday, Graves and his friends were trying to decide what to do with their last day together at the encampment. They had discussed setting up an encampment protest on Freedom Plaza, he said. But whatever they decide to do, they have to move on. “Gotta’ find another spot,” Graves said. “[You] do what you can.”