Image by Mike Licht licensed under Creative Commons.

In January 2017, the District counted 7,473 people experiencing homelessness, with 897 people unsheltered and living in the street. Some people experiencing homelessness are living in encampments or singular tents, with encampments springing up in Foggy Bottom, Noma, and by Union Station.

The DC Department of Health has opted to remove these encampments, a process sometimes requested by neighborhood residents and ANCs. The encampment removals have sparked controversy. Last month, several people experiencing homelessness filed a class-action lawsuit against the District, claiming that their belongings were being improperly thrown away during sweeps of encampments.

DC has a protocol in place to remove encampments

Foggy Bottom is home to a large number of homeless encampments, and has been the center of several controversies about their existence and removal. One encampment, at 26th and K Streets NW by the Whitehurst Freeway, attracted concern from the ANC and local residents, who cited human waste and baby pitbulls owned by encampment residents as public safety hazards. In November 2015, DC officials spent more than $132,000 removing the 40-person encampment, and later erected a fence over the area to prevent residents from returning.

Per the District’s encampment protocol, residents are given 14 days written notice and increased engagement from officials with the Metropolitan Police Department, the Department of Public Works, and the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services prior to the removal of an encampment. Belongings of encampment residents may be stored for up to 60 days by the DC government, so owners can retrieve items taken during encampment removals.

DC officials work to provide residents with services, and in some cases, offer housing, though legal advocates have pointed out that there is not enough temporary shelter to house those displaced by encampment removals.

Homeless encampment removals are expensive and controversial

The DC government has argued that encampment removals are necessary to maintain public health and safety by removing waste, and that pitching a tent interferes with community use of public space, but not everyone agrees.

Encampment removals have proven to be controversial. In Noma, an encampment was removed to make way for an art display, prompting an outcry about gentrification. Activists and advocacy groups have questioned the morality and effectiveness of further encampment clean-ups in Foggy Bottom, pointing to the fact that encampment residents often return to the site where their encampment was removed 24 hours later, with the cycle of encampment removal and return repeating itself.

In addition to the November 2015 Whitehurst encampment removal, the District government spent more than $40,000 on encampment removals from October 2015 to January 2016 – funds that could have been used to provide services to people experiencing homelessness.

Because anyone can contact the Deputy Mayor’s office and ask them to initiate the encampment removal protocol, people who support the removal of encampments would often succeed in getting an encampment removed, only to grow frustrated when encampment residents returned to the area the next day.

Some of those who support encampment removals have questioned why the DC government cannot seize residents’ tents indefinitely to prevent their return to an area. Such a policy would harm those experiencing homelessness, and is against the District’s current protocol. Others have pointed out that offering supportive housing to encampment residents is unfair to those living in shelters, because people could jump to the front of the line for housing by pitching a tent.

A new lawsuit will test DC’s encampment removal policies

Last month, a group of people experiencing homelessness filed a class-action lawsuit against the DC government, alleging that the District was throwing away the belongings of homeless residents in violation of DC encampment protocol and the 4th Amendment’s prohibition on unlawful search and seizure.

Represented by prestigious law firm Covington & Burling, the residents argue that the District “has followed a consistent practice of destroying unattended belongings whenever the owner is absent for some or all of a clearing,” including “tents and other shelters, bicycles, blankets, clothing, identification documents, medications, Social Security cards, medical and court records, family photographs, letters, and other personal belongings.”

One of the exhibits attached to the lawsuit was a sign of a resident at the Whitehurst encampment removal, directing clean-up crews to not take his belongings: “I have very little, as is. Please try to restrain from taking any more.”

As the lawsuit progresses through the courts, one thing is certain: until the District is able to provide mental health services and safe housing for all of those who need it, people will continue to live in encampments. Those of us fortunate to be able to afford housing would do better to support affordable housing, including temporary shelter, rather than unconstructive approaches that make it harder for people experiencing homelessness to access the resources they need.