End Encampment Clearings and No Camping Zones

Testimony at the Performance Oversight Hearing on the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services

Chairperson Henderson and members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today. My name is Kate Coventry, and I am the Deputy Director of Legislative Strategy at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI). DCFPI is a non-profit organization that shapes racially-just tax, budget, and policy decisions by centering Black and brown communities in our research and analysis, community partnerships, and advocacy efforts to advance an antiracist, equitable future.

DCFPI thanks Mayor Bowser and the DC Council for fully funding the Permanent Supportive Housing asks made by The Way Home Campaign, the campaign to end chronic homelessness, in the fiscal year (FY) 2023 budget. Combined with funding in the FY 2022 budget, these investments will drastically improve the lives of 2,800 individuals experiencing homelessness. However, the Mayor’s administration is undermining these improvements by continuing the policy of encampment evictions and creation of no camping zones. With these new resources, the District should focus on what works: housing first, without timelines that are unreasonable and threats of displacement.

DCFPI is here today to ask the District to end encampment clearings and no camping zones and address shortcomings in the shelter system that lead to encampments. We are also asking the Council to request a detailed budget on encampment clearings from the Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services (DMHHS) to improve transparency and adequate evaluation of encampment clearings.

The District Should End Encampment Clearings and the Creation of No Camping Zones

Prior to 2015, the District did not clear encampments except in rare circumstances for health and safety reasons. This was in keeping with national best practice and research:

  • The US Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) argues that encampment clearings are “not an appropriate solution or strategy, accomplishes nothing toward the goal of linking people to permanent housing opportunities, and can make it more difficult to provide such lasting solutions to people who have been sleeping and living in the encampment.”[1]
  • The USICH also maintains that clearing encampments can undermine the goal of moving individuals into housing as it can interrupt relationships with outreach workers and create distrust, making it less likely that an individual will accept a housing offer.[2]
  • The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) finds that continuous sweeps cause encampment residents to focus on meeting short term needs, unsettling the stability needed to engage in planning needed to move into housing.[3]
  • Additionally, outreach workers reported to HUD that residents lose identification, legal documents, and medications.[4]
  • In a survey conducted in January 2018 through January 2020, health care providers in San Francisco noted that insurance companies will often either not replace lost medication or will only do so after “extensive advocacy,” including phone calls and paperwork.[5] As a result, patients go without medication for extended periods, up to months for some.[6]
  • Health care providers also reported in the survey that encampment clearings lead to the loss of critical mobility equipment such as walkers and make it difficult to find patients for follow-up care.[7]
  • Encampment clearings may result in long-term traumatic psychological and emotional harm for individuals who are not moved into housing, evidence from three cities shows.[8]

For all these reasons, the District should end all encampment clearings and the creation of no camping zones. If the District is not willing to end encampment clearings outright, it should at the very least suspend them through the end of the public health emergency. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that if housing is not available, governments should allow people to continue to live in encampments.[9] While the District is offering housing to some encampment residents, most do not receive housing prior to being displaced and will end up moving to another encampment. The US Park Service acknowledged that some of the problems at the McPherson Square encampment are likely caused by individuals moving there after the Scott Circle encampment was cleared and the area fenced off.[10]

The District Should Address Shortcomings in the Shelter System that Lead to Encampments

Encampments are not anyone’s first choice for housing. As described in a HUD report on encampments, “decisions about where to stay represent pragmatic choices among the best available alternatives […] Encampments form in response to the absence of other, desirable options for shelter.”[11]

While the District has made strides in improving singles shelters, much more is left to do. DC’s shelters share several shortcomings identified by HUD that may contribute to the increased number of residents staying in encampments:[12]

  • DC’s shelters lead to separation from partners, family members, or friends. The shelter system for adults without children is segregated by sex except for one LGBTQ site. Otherwise, adults with partners, family members, or friends of a different gender cannot go into shelter together.
  • DC’s shelters do not allow pets. Evidence finds that the bonds that people form with their pets improve their emotional well-being, and in some cases, it can support their sobriety, help them stay out of trouble, and leave abusive partners. When asked, most individuals will not give up their pets and live outside rather than give them up. [13]
  • DC’s shelters restrict the number of belongings residents can have. Most DC shelters allow residents to only two bags. Many find it impossible to reduce their belongings to just two bags.

HUD identified other shortcomings of shelter that are more inherent to the program design.[14] Residents worry about personal safety and the safety of their belongings. They also worry about exposure to germs and disease, and this was before the COVID-19 pandemic. These concerns have only been heightened by the pandemic. The District should take these concerns into account when building new shelters.

The Council Should Ask for a Detailed Budget on Encampment Clearings

The Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services) has not reported on the encampment clearing budget since 2017. DCFPI encourages the Council to request both the total costs per encampment clearing since 2020 and the number of individuals cleared at each encampment.

Understanding the costs is critical to evaluating encampment clearings, especially as costs are generally high. One national HUD study found a huge range in the costs of clearing encampments: from $1,080 to $6,208 per person who was unsheltered, not including the costs of housing for these individuals.[15] In just one quarter in FY 2016, DMHHS spent $172,000 for one small encampment clearing effort. Absent transparency, Council input, and a specific budget for this program, DCFPI and other advocates are concerned that funding this pilot could be expensive and, in turn, cause budget shortfalls and/or lead to cuts to other homeless services.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify, and I am happy to answer any questions.

[1]Ending Homelessness for People Living in Encampments: Advancing the Dialogue.” United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. August 2015.

[2] Ibid, p. 2.

[3] Rebecca Cohen, Will Yetvin, and Jill Khadduri, “Understanding Encampments of People Experiencing Homelessness and Community Responses: Emerging Evidence as of Late 2018,” U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Policy Development and Research. January 7, 2019.

[4] Lauren Dunton, Jill Khadduri, Kimberly Burnett, Nichole Fiore, and Will Yetvin, “Exploring Homelessness among People Living in Encampments and Associated Cost: City Approaches to Encampments and What They Cost,” U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Policy Development and Research. February 2020.

[5] Diane Qi, Kamran Abri, M. Rani Mukherjee, Amy Rosenwohl-Mack, Lina Khoeur, Lily Barnard, and Kelly Ray Knight, “Health Impacts of Street Sweeps from the Perspective of Healthcare Providers,” Journal of General Internal Medicine. March 16, 2022.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Rebecca Cohen, Will Yetvin, and Jill Khadduri.

[9] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Guidance on Management of COVID-19 in Homeless Service Sites and in Correctional and Detention Facilities.” Updated November 29, 2022.

[10] Jeffrey Reinbold, Superintendent, National Mall and Memorial Parks, National Park Service. Letter to DC Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, February 15, 2023.

[11] Rebecca Cohen, Will Yetvin, and Jill Khadduri.

[12] Ibid, p. 4

[13]Improving Outcomes in Homelessness: Keeping People and Pets Together,” National Alliance to End Homelessness and PetSmart Charities, February 2020

[14] Rebecca Cohen, Will Yetvin, and Jill Khadduri.

[15] Lauren Dunton, Jill Khadduri, Kimberly Burnett, Nichole Fiore, and Will Yetvin.