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D.C. staff and officials were scrambling Wednesday after residents of the District’s largest homeless encampment learned they would be vacated from McPherson Square two months earlier than expected. to avoid leaving dozens of homeless residents out in the cold without going.

According to Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Wayne Turnage, only 15 of the estimated 70 people gathered at the park had been approved for housing assistance from the borough as of Wednesday morning. Another ten were awaiting approval, Turnage said, while the rest “just refused to work with our team.”

But residents of McPherson Park, at the heart of the Central District’s government and financial sector, say the city’s efforts during the winter months have been sparse, until now.

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About a dozen staff weaved through the campus Wednesday, scribbling residents’ information on clipboards and walking individuals through the steps needed to apply for housing assistance before the new Feb. 15 deadline. A 32-seater city-owned bus sat next to the park, ready for employers to use as temporary office space. Some residents seemed to be listening. others kept their distance.

For some who are experiencing homelessness, previous attempts to get help have weakened their confidence in the system. “You’re not going to help all of us,” one woman repeatedly yelled at the employers Wednesday afternoon before walking into her tent.

In the confusion, Shelley Byars, 45, emerged from her tent in the south corner of the park. He pulled on thick gloves against the cold wind.

“I’ve been here since June 2022,” he said, gesturing to the items — tarps, a bicycle, a wheelbarrow filled with bags — packed around the tent where he slept.

Byars said she lived in Oxon Run Park in Southeast Washington before moving to McPherson. While he knew officials planned to clear the downtown encampment, he said he had little idea how or when the removal would happen. Notices announcing the new date were posted around the park on Monday, but residents continued to tear them down.

“How are we supposed to move all our stuff?” Byars said: “We don’t camp. We live here.”

The McPherson Square camp, which has grown over the past six months, was scheduled to be cleared on April 12, during the US hypothermia season. declared complete. But Turnage asked the National Park Service, which oversees the park, to increase its schedule because of “high levels of illegal drug and other criminal activity” that “impedes access to social services and endangers social service providers, mental health practitioners, vulnerable individuals and the public.” “, according to a letter obtained by The Washington Post.

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In an interview, neither Turnage nor Jamal Weldon, who oversees the District’s response to homeless encampments for Turnage’s department, said they could provide specific examples of encampment residents endangering service providers or clinics. But Weldon said he had received reports of “hostile engagements” at the park from outreach workers, and that U.S. park police had also noticed “security issues” during their regular patrols of the area.

Jesse Rabinowitz, senior manager of policy and advocacy for the homeless relief organization Miriam’s Kitchen, said the rush to remove homeless residents from McPherson doesn’t address problems officials say there, such as property crime, drug use and unsanitary conditions. .

“We’re not really solving the root of any of these problems. we’re just forcing them to move somewhere else,” Rabinowitz said. “Why are camp evictions the only solution we ever use?”

Several people living in McPherson Square moved there only after being evicted from other camps. Daniel Kingery, who has lived in the park since April 2020, said he could watch the D.C. campgrounds close as McPherson’s population grows. The first big wave came in June 2020, Kingery said, when D.C. officials closed Franklin Square for renovations and displaced homeless residents seeking shelter there. With each clearing of the camp, on New Jersey Avenue outside of Union Square in NoMa, more people wandered into McPherson Square and into the camp.

Kingery, who said he was a former Marine, began living in McPherson after being kicked out of nearby Lafayette Square, where he protested the government day and night until April 2020, when the US Secret Service ordered him to evacuate. : He refused, was arrested, and a restraining order was imposed on him.

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“People think of McPherson as a last resort,” Rabinowitz said. “There are people living there for whom this will be the fourth or fifth eviction. People are pouring out across the city, being pushed from one place to another, and it shows what we’ve been saying for years, which is that closing the camps doesn’t solve homelessness.”

Turnage acknowledged that camp closures lead to displacement.

“We try to avoid that as much as possible by offering a variety of services,” he said, noting that D.C. has several shelters for homeless adults and will house voucher recipients in hotels. while they wait for an apartment to be placed. “It doesn’t change the fact that some [encampment residents] it will just move.”

Turnage said the District will spend the next two weeks making a “quick effort” to convince about 50 residents to accept government assistance, seek shelter at one of the city’s low-barrier facilities or otherwise leave the area by Feb. 15.

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Kingery, 61, who lives under a large beach umbrella in the park’s southwest corner, said government and police intervention has been minimal at the camp this week, even as residents themselves have called for help. He derided Wednesday’s apparently stepped-up effort as “one big show.”

“It’s all to make it look like they’re doing something when they’re just moving people from one park to another,” Kingery said.

On Wednesday, Byars said a field worker stopped by his tent to offer information about his options. But Byars was unsure. She said the city approved her for a housing voucher in July, but no one has helped her find a place to stay.

Turnage blamed persistent understaffing on the backlog of housing vouchers and services, which hinders the city’s ability to make a meaningful dent in the homelessness crisis.

“There are enough vouchers to basically eliminate homelessness in this city,” Turnage said. “The challenge is that you have to have units available to absorb those vouchers and case managers available to work with these residents, especially those who are struggling, to make sure they get the wrap services they need so that placements will not be carried out”. not collapse into failure.”

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For the homeless residents of McPherson Square, the appearance of more government workers on Wednesday dampened their hopes.

Kingery, whose ongoing protest requires him to be near the White House, said he is not sure what he will do if the park is forced to close within two weeks. He can’t go back to Lafayette Square, he said. Franklin Square, a block from McPherson, has been designated a no-camping zone. As the District closes more sites, the options dwindle.


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