Opinion: Ward 6 Councilmember Risks Prolonging Homelessness and Displacement

Council Votes on Emergency Legislation Dec. 7

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A tent is pictured in the L Street underpass in this Sept file photo.

Aug. 3, 2021 was a jubilant day for homelessness advocates. The DC Council passed a new fiscal year budget with a historic amount of funds to end chronic homelessness for 3,500 households.

Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen helped champion a small income tax increase on single earners making more than $250,000 per year. This new revenue provided the funds for permanent housing opportunities to potentially end homelessness in DC.

DC’s new budget presents an exciting example for the United States. Denmark, Japan, our neighbor Canada, and other countries have already succeeded in ending chronic homelessness with a similar “housing-first” approach, particularly in urban areas.

The housing-first solution and its relatively low cost may come as a surprise to Americans unsure of how to solve homelessness: the government simply provides free homes, with no strings attached. With the stability and dignity of their own home, the formerly unhoused person succeeds in securing their own employment and stable income, resolving their own mental health and drug use issues, and much more. T

hus other countries end chronic homelessness while spending far less than the United States, especially with regard to years of repeated U.S. social services for individuals who are genuinely struggling with long-term homelessness.

DC is now racing to move homeless encampment residents into the newly funded housing. Unfortunately, instead of completely guiding people through the bureaucracy to acquire full and permanent housing, the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services (DMHHS) has chosen arbitrary dates for evicting people from their encampments. One of the authors of this editorial personally struggled to balance their day job with the appointments and paperwork required for DC government housing assistance in a previous life—and ultimately failed to secure that assistance on time.

DC’s first push culminated in the police-led eviction of the NoMa underpasses around L and M Streets NE on Oct. 4, three days after the beginning of the new fiscal year. A DC government employee driving a front loader hit an unhoused person, who was screaming from inside the machine and ultimately went to the hospital.

Just over a dozen underpass residents had received housing at the time of the eviction, but the majority never did and dispersed to other neighborhoods or returned to NoMa where they are now sleeping in between the new concrete barriers.

Some of these individuals moved to the encampment at New Jersey Ave and O St NW, which DC also evicted on Dec. 2 using a larger bulldozer and a greatly expanded police force, displacing them once again. Nonprofits and unhoused people testified in a DC Council roundtable on the issue that most never received offers of housing and that the repeated violent evictions were having a destabilizing effect.

The erosion of trust was making it even more difficult to move people into housing. In a glimmer of hope, Allen and most Councilmembers sent DMHHS a letter asking for no heavy machinery in evictions, but DMHHS’ use of heavy machinery continues.

Homelessness-focused nonprofits uniformly oppose the current approach of evictions. Several dozen national and local organizations, 55 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners, Ward 6 religious and civic leaders, and 990 signatories have signed a letter to Allen and DMHHS calling on them to commit to the housing-first approach. The letter and signatories are visible at https://bit.ly/unhousedlettersignees.

DC legislators have responded to the past three months of alarms from legal observers, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners, and nonprofits around encampment evictions in two ways.

The first group, so far consisting of four Councilmembers—Brianne Nadeau, Janeese Lewis George, Elissa Silverman, and Robert White—is calling for DC to fully and permanently house residents before clearing an encampment. Silverman stated, “We want the mayor to stick to a housing first strategy, not her latest move the homeless somewhere less visible strategy.”

The second group currently includes at least Allen, who has been avoiding public comment on the housing-or-evictions question. Allen faces political pressure from NoMa Business Improvement District (BID) and others to move homelessness away from Ward 6 rather than solving it.

Camp evictions are exacerbating and perpetuating homelessness but also posing myriad issues for Ward 6 and citywide. Federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines state that cities should not perform homeless encampment clearings during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, a DMHHS spokesperson told a DCist reporter in 2020, “the CDC guidance is just that, it is guidance. It is not a law, it is not a requirement.” (1)

Allen also promised a group of nonprofits that the January 2020 K Street NE underpass eviction would be a “one-time thing”—but he has become uncharacteristically tight-lipped at a time when camp evictions are expanding into a tool for the most politically influential neighborhoods to offload social issues onto less privileged neighborhoods.

DC’s Ward 6 has the “most intense displacement” in the “most intensely gentrifying” city in the United States, according to the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity and the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. (2,3) A sombering majority of the displaced individuals are Black and low-income. The expansion of encampment evictions without councilmember comment during the past few months of Allen’s Ward 6 leadership threatens to accelerate these trends.

Thankfully, there is still time for Allen to make the right decision. Many Ward 6 residents are rightfully proud of Allen’s record of outspoken leadership regarding potential citywide decisions negatively affecting the ward, including Allen’s Hail No RFK campaign, Allen’s emergency legislation compelling DC to make Florida Avenue NE safer, and much more.

In a significant development, Nadeau, leading the housing-first group of Councilmembers, has introduced an emergency legislation to mandate DMHHS to pursue the housing-first approach before clearing encampments. The DC Council is scheduled to vote on Tuesday, Dec. 7. It remains decisive for the future of Ward 6 and ending homelessness in DC whether Allen will vote to support housing-first.

Robb Dooling, Keya Chatterjee, and Alison Horn are volunteer Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners for 6A06, 6A01, and 6B09, respectively. You can follow the work of ANC6A and ANC 6B at www.anc6a.org and www.anc6b.org. The viewpoints expressed in this article are the Commissioners’ own in their capacities as Commissioners representing their Single Member Districts.

Sources

  1. D.C. Continues Encampment Cleanups During The Pandemic Despite CDC Guidance – DCist

  2. Gentrification in D.C. means widespread displacement, study finds – The Washington Post

  3. D.C. has the highest ‘intensity’ of gentrification of any U.S. city, study says – The Washington Post