National Park Service employees on Wednesday swept through a large homeless encampment three blocks from the White House, tearing down dozens of tents and warning that people who resisted would be subject to arrest. Workers in white jumpsuits used rakes, shovels and pitchforks to clear McPherson Square, tossing the remnants of the tent city into a pair of garbage trucks.
The action was the latest development in a long-running saga involving the District of Columbia government, the Park Service and homeless people, whose advocates claim the city hasn’t done enough to help them find safe shelter.
“There are people living here who don’t know where they’re going to sleep tonight. The entire purpose of this is to displace people and to ‘invisiblize’ and criminalize homelessness,” said Jesse Rabinowitz, of Miriam’s Kitchen, one of a collection of charitable organizations that has been working with those who have made the park their home.
The encampment in McPherson Square has grown steadily over the past year, to about 50 tents as of Wednesday. Many people said they came after encampments in other parts of downtown were cleared by either the federal agency or the city government.
“Any time people were forced out of somewhere else, they would see the tents here and figure it was safe for a while,” said Daniel Kingery, who has lived in the park for three years. While the majority of the estimated 70 people live in the park complied without incident, Kingery, 61, cheerfully said authorities “would have to carry or drag me away.”
The National Park Service, which has jurisdiction over McPherson Square and large swaths of other green space across the city, had originally announced plans to clear the square in April. But the deputy mayor for health and human services, Wayne Turnage, requested that the date be moved up by two months, saying the encampment was an imminent public health hazard.
NPS spokesman Mike Litterst said that despite the accelerated timeline, there still was notice of about two weeks. “The District’s social service providers intensified their efforts to connect people with housing and other services,” he said.
In the morning, police sealed off the park and repeatedly announced over a loudspeaker that the space would be closed down and those who refused to leave would risk arrest. As the 10am deadline approached, a group of representatives from a coalition of charitable groups helped to gather up and label people’s belongings and haul them off in a rental truck.
Representatives from Pathways to Housing, a charity that contracts with the Washington D.C. government as a liaison to the downtown unhoused population, went tent to tent, making sure each person was aware of what was coming. “Brandon, they are going to come here and take this down,” one worker shouted outside a closed tent. “They’re coming, you have about 10 minutes!”
The issue of Washington’s robust homeless population has been a long-term puzzle for Mayor Muriel Bowser’s government. The tent clusters frequently move between city and Park Service land to take advantage of the district’s specific jurisdictional complexities.
City officials say they have offered consistent outreach services and shelter for all who were willing to engage with the system. But those who live in the park dismissed the short-term shelter system as unsafe and undignified.
“The shelters are infested with mice and there’s mold on the walls. And they’re not safe,” said a woman named Umi, who declined to give her last name. She said Bowser and Turnage “need to go sleep one night in one of these shelters and see what we experience.”
Housing activists say most of those who are unhoused would happily take part in a government program that offers vouchers for subsidized apartments. But that program has been plagued by delays and a bottleneck partially caused by staffing shortages.
“One of the things that makes this so appalling is that the city does have ample resources,” said Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, whose office overlooks the park.
Yentel said case workers “needed more time” to work with the McPherson Square residents, but those efforts were cut short when the federal government agreed to accelerate the deadline.
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