Bowser's plan to clear homeless encampments, new D.C. ward maps face council vote Bowser says her encampment-clearing initiative helps unhoused people in dire circumstances, while homeless advocates say it perpetuates harm.
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Bowser's plan to clear homeless encampments, new D.C. ward maps face council vote

A bulldozer prepares to clear people's belongings from a homeless encampment in Truxton Circle on Thursday. Héctor Alejandro Arzate/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Héctor Alejandro Arzate/WAMU/DCist

The D.C. Council on Tuesday will vote on new ward maps, as well as a bill to stop the city from further clearing homeless encampments.

A controversial pilot program launched by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser over the summer to clear designated homeless encampments will face a critical test, with some lawmakers aiming to stop the initiative altogether. But whether they succeed remains unclear, as Council Chairman Phil Mendelson has said that some councilmembers have expressed "considerable unease" with fully blocking Bowser's push.

The pitched fight revolves around Bowser's CARE pilot program, launched in August as a response to the growing number of encampments that have appeared during the pandemic and concerns among some city officials and residents around health and safety conditions there.

Under the program, the city identified five homeless encampments in NoMa, Truxton Circle, and Foggy Bottom, and set about working to offer housing to residents there before closing the encampments and prohibiting anyone from coming back. Two encampments in NoMa and one in Truxton Circle have been closed since September; city officials say that of 77 people counted across the three sites, 45 are in housing, 32 are in the process of getting housing, and the remainder either refused the city's offers or left the encampments before outreach workers could help them.

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But homeless advocates and some lawmakers have vocally pushed back against the pilot program, saying it unfairly hangs the threat of forced encampment clearings over unhoused peoples' heads, fraying trust between outreach workers and marginalized residents and breaking up communities of people experiencing homelessness. In letters, statements, and a day-long council hearing last month, they have urged Bowser to pause the encampment clearings and instead focus only on getting residents there into housing.

An emergency bill introduced by Councilmember Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1) last week would do just that by prohibiting the city from clearing anymore encampments and instead requiring that it provide services ranging from lavatories to regular trash disposal to the remaining encampments that have yet to be cleared. (There are two in Foggy Bottom: one at E and 21st streets NW and another at 25th Street and Virginia Avenue NW.)

"The idea that we're setting an arbitrary deadline — people have to leave by a certain time and take whatever it is the government's offering at that moment — is not a good strategy," she explained on WAMU 88.5's "The Politics Hour" on Friday. "Why am I going to trust somebody who is threatening me? Why am I going to trust that what you're offering me is real or it's going to work this time? You've got to remember, a lot of these folks have been living outside a long time. They've been made a lot of promises and they're not necessarily going to respond to the first thing you offer them. They want to find a place that's right for them. And they deserve that."

Nadeau also said that Bowser should instead use the additional funding the council allocated for housing program (through a tax increase on wealthy households) to help people living in encampments.

A coalition of homeless advocacy groups and Advisory Neighborhood Commissions — not to mention a number of D.C. Council candidates, Attorney General Karl Racine, and Bowser challenger Councilmember Robert White (D-At Large) — have weighed in to support Nadeau's bill, which will need support from a super majority of he council's members to pass. But the pilot program has drawn support from some residents, and Nadeau's bill is opposed by Bowser, who user her mayoral newsletter on Friday to tout the pilot program and insist that it not be paused.

"We have an emergency that will only worsen if we don't act. That's why we are piloting an innovative initiative to streamline access to housing for unsheltered D.C. residents living in encampments," she wrote. "The dangers and risks of living outside are too great for us to ignore. Especially as we continue through hypothermia season, we must do everything possible to get our residents into safe homes and safe shelter where they have an actual roof over their head."

Still, it remains unclear whether enough support exists among lawmakers to stop Bowser's pilot program. Speaking on Monday, Mendelson conceded he did not have a preliminary vote count on the emergency bill, but said he sensed "considerable unease" from some councilmembers over whether blocking Bowser would be a wise decision.

"My sense is that members feel that a complete prohibition, to turn off this initiative, which is evolving in terms of strategies, to turn that off is not what most members want to see," he said. "A large number of residents in the city are becoming alarmed at what they see as a growth of these encampments... and the would like to see us do something about it."

The issue of homeless encampments has prompted debate in other cities, including Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. It has also prompted some confusion in D.C., where some encampments on federal land have been cleared by the National Park Service — without offering those residents access to the same services that the city has offered through its pilot program.

New ward lines up for vote

The council will also be casting a first vote on a map of new ward boundaries that was proposed as part of the decennial redistricting process. As we reported last week, the principal flashpoint has been around how far west Ward 7 should extend into Capitol Hill.

On Monday, Mendelson said he would offer his own amendment to the map proposed by the council's three-member redistricting subcommittee, setting the boundary for Ward 7 along 15th Street from Potomac Avenue SE to Benning Road NE. (The current boundary is largely along 19th Street.) Some residents on the east end of Capitol Hill have opposed being moved into Ward 7, while a coalition of Ward 7 organizations said the move would allow the ward to grow equitably.

"The reality is Ward 7 and Ward 8 both did not grow over the last 10 years the way other wards did, especially Ward 6," said Mendelson. "Ward 6 has to lose population, and then it comes down to choices. Any neighborhood that's going to be redistricted is going to find people who are upset."

In a statement on Monday afternoon, Councilmember Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7) hailed Mendelson's proposed changes to the map, saying it would expand his ward a "fairly and equitably." (Gray is unlikely to be present for the vote, though, having suffered bronchitis and a mild stroke over the weekend.)

A second and final vote is expected Dec. 21, after which task forces will set about redrawing the boundaries of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. The redistricting process will not impact police districts or school boundaries, nor will it change existing residential parking privileges.

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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