Muriel Bowser’s handling of homeless encampments has D.C. parents, lawmakers on edge

Lawmakers and locals are criticizing D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser over her efforts to address homelessness, which they say is getting worse, not better, in the nation’s capital.

The second-term Democrat campaigned in 2014 on reducing the city’s homeless population. In 2016, she launched a multiyear, $145 million “Homeward DC” plan designed to make homelessness “rare, brief, and nonrecurring” by 2020, and to eliminate it by 2025.

Since then, the city’s overall homeless population has dropped by 38%, from 8,350 in 2016 to 5,111 in 2021. However, the number of chronically homeless has spiked 21% in the past year, from 1,337 to 1,618.

The city defines chronically homeless people as those “who have been experiencing homelessness for a year or more in total, either continuous or four episodes in the past three years and have a disabling condition.”

Republican lawmakers signed a letter to the mayor this month saying that “over the past several months, the city has deteriorated to a point reminiscent of the 1990s,” when pundits and media figures referred to the District as the nation’s “murder capital” after the city recorded 482 homicides in 1991. 

“As violent crime and homelessness have increased at an unchecked rate throughout the city, your administration seems to have given up trying to prevent the District from falling into a state of chaos,” the four-page letter said.

The Republican members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee said the nation’s capital is plagued by violent crime and is on track to meet or exceed the 198 homicides recorded in 2020, the highest number in 16 years. 

City statistics as of Tuesday show violent crime is up 3% compared with the same time last year, from 3,100 to 3,194 incidents, and homicides are up 9%, from 158 to 173.

The lawmakers said the growing homeless encampments are likely fueling crime.

“The emergence of vast homeless communities — where drug use and violence often go unchecked — will only exacerbate and add to the crime in the city,” they wrote. “Tent communities are becoming more permanent, with some now outfitted with toilets, tables for donations, and trash [receptacles] littered with the city’s logo on them.”

The congressional Republicans told Miss Bowser that “by ignoring this growing issue, your administration is contributing to these people’s suffering, not alleviating it.”

The District isn’t the only U.S. city struggling to deal humanely with tent cities and shantytowns that have sprung up on public and private land.

Officials in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver and Austin, Texas, have poured millions of dollars into rehousing homeless people, but the persistence of encampments is fueling a backlash from taxpayers.

Los Angeles enacted an ordinance last month to create encampment-free zones around schools. In Austin, officials are reclaiming sidewalks and other public spaces by clearing tent cities.

Three days after the Republicans sent the letter, D.C. workers were clearing a homeless encampment when a bulldozer hit a man inside a tent.

D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman, at-large independent, told The Washington Times that the situation was concerning.

“The image of a small bulldozer scooping someone up is one thing that we need to explain,” she said during a phone interview this week. “And, you know, a lot of people have seen that video, and it’s a disturbing image.”

Wayne Turnage, deputy mayor for the D.C. Department of Health and Human Services, immediately paused the clearing project. He said the man was taken to a hospital and treated for minor injuries.

Ms. Silverman said she does not think any malice is involved, but questions remain unanswered.

“I’ll take the deputy mayor at his word that, you know, it was certain it was not on purpose,” she said. “But I think it does call into question that we maybe should consider the protocols again about how to remove the tents and make sure that no one is inside a tent.”

The council member said the debate about addressing homelessness has created “tension” among local officials.

“Is the goal to get residents into permanent housing, or is the goal to conquer the encampments?” she asked. “I want to make sure that our goal is to get encampment residents into permanent housing, and that does not appear to be the case right now.”

Scott Schenkelberg, president and CEO of the local homeless advocacy nonprofit Miriam’s Kitchen, agrees with Ms. Silverman. In a statement last week, he said the incident represents the potential consequences of clearing homeless encampments.

“The bulldozing of an unhoused person at last week’s encampment eviction is a powerful example of the trauma and tragic accidents that occur when displacement and arbitrary timelines are prioritized over the health and safety of our unhoused neighbors,” Mr. Schenkelberg said.

The area is one of three selected to be cleared this year. Local officials say they are among the largest encampments in the city and have shown high levels of “resident vulnerability and community impact.”

Under her Coordinated Assistance and Resources for Encampments Pilot Program launched in July, the mayor approved $35 million to clear the three encampments and designate them as “no tent zones.”

Mr. Schenkelberg said he is “deeply concerned” about closing the encampment zones.

“By doubling down on the policing and criminalization of homelessness — systems known to cause and perpetuate homelessness — D.C. is only contributing to the vicious cycle between prison and homelessness,” Mr. Schenkelberg said.

Miss Bowser’s approach to combating homelessness is misguided, he said.

Residents in Northwest D.C. lobbied the city in the spring to remove a homeless encampment along the fence of the playground at Seaton Elementary School.

Their worries grew after a man at the encampment was arrested on charges of assault with a dangerous weapon, carrying a pistol without a license, possession of a large capacity ammunition feeding device, possession of unregistered ammunition and receiving stolen property.

Suzie Jacobs, the principal of Seaton Elementary School, sent a letter to families in April saying the school was “aware of concerns that continue to be raised regarding the neighboring encampment in proximity to Seaton’s playground.”

The tents are gone now, but city officials in the spring just cleaned up the encampment site, installed a mesh barrier on either side of the playground fence and asked the homeless people to move their tents 3 feet away from the school grounds.

Frustrated parents shared their concerns on local news reports.

“We feel that while the mayor’s office and city officials have taken actions to mitigate our safety concerns, they haven’t done enough to find that win-win situation,” parent Suki Lucier told WUSA9-TV.

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