Testimony at the Budget Oversight Roundtable for the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services

Chairman Gray and Chairperson Nadeau and members of the Committees, thank you for the opportunity to testify today. My name is Kate Coventry, and I am a senior policy analyst 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 for fully funding the Permanent Supportive Housing asks made by The Way Home Campaign, the campaign to end chronic homelessness. Combined with funding in the fiscal year (FY) 2022 budget, these investments will drastically improve the lives of 2,800 individuals experiencing homelessness. However, these improvements will be at risk if DC continues the policy of encampment evictions and 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.

I am here today to ask the District to end encampment clearings and no encamping zones and to ask the Council to request the agency submits a detailed budget.

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

As a member of The Way Home campaign, DCFPI believes it is a victory for DC any time a neighbor moves from homelessness into housing.[1] So we are thrilled that our neighbors living in encampments will move into housing as part of the Coordinated Assistance and Resources for Encampments (CARE) pilot. But we have grave concerns about the elements of the pilot resulting in the clearing of encampments and the creation of no camping zones, and we urge the District to stop these harmful practices. Outreach workers have reported that residents who did not receive an offer for housing from DHS and were displaced during the NoMA encampment clearing have moved to other encampments.[2] The District can continue to house people staying in encampments without forcing other encampment residents who are not receiving housing to move to new locations.

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 “The forced dispersal of people from encampment settings is 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.[3]
  • The USICH also maintains that clearing encampments can undermine the goal of ending homelessness, “as forcing individuals to move can disrupt relationships with outreach workers and create distrust, making an individual less likely to accept an offer of housing.”[4]
  • The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) finds that continuous sweeps cause encampment residents to focus on meeting short term needs, “disrupting the level of stability necessary for encampment residents to engage in long term planning” needed to move into housing.[5]
  • Additionally, outreach workers reported to HUD that residents lose identification, legal documents, and medications,[6] making it more difficult to move them into housing.
  • In a survey, health care providers noted that insurance companies will often either not replace lost medication or will only do so after “extensive advocacy” including phone calls and paperwork.[7] As a result, patients go without medication “for weeks to even months.”[8]
  • Health care providers also reported that encampment clearings lead to the loss of critical mobility equipment like walkers and make it difficult to find patients for follow up care.[9]
  • Evidence from three cities suggests that encampment clearings “have lasting traumatic psychological and emotional impacts” for individuals who are not moved into housing.[10] We have reason to believe this is happening under the CARE pilot, as not all encampment residents are receiving housing.

For all of these reasons, the District should end all encampment clearings and the creation of no encamping zones. If the District is not willing to end encampment clearings outright, it should at the very least suspend them for the duration of the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that “if individual housing options are not available, [the government should] allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are.” While the District is offering housing to some encampment residents through the CARE pilot, others will not receive housing. The CDC reports that clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community, increasing the potential for spreading COVID-19. DCFPI urges the District to protect the health of those living in encampments by following CDC guidance and halting all encampment clearings at least until the end of the pandemic.

The Council Should Ask for a Detailed Budget on the CARE Pilot

The Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services (DMHHS) has reported that it is not possible to provide a budget for encampment clearings. The reasons for this are not clear, since in 2016 DMHHS was able to provide a detailed budget.

Understanding the costs is critical to evaluating the efficacy of the encampment pilot, 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.[11] In just one quarter in FY 2016, DMHHS spent $172,000 for a much smaller encampment clearing effort than is happening in the CARE pilot. 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] Jesse Rabinowitz, “The Way Home Statement on Mayor Bowser’s new approach to homeless encampments,” The Way Home Campaign, October 4, 2021.

[2] Reported to DCFPI by Pathways to Housing DC.

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

[4] Ibid.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

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

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