D.C. Council votes against measure to stop winter homeless encampment clearings The bill would have prevented encampment clearings until April 1.
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D.C. Council votes against measure to stop winter homeless encampment clearings

A bulldozer prepares to clear people's belongings from a homeless encampment in Truxton Circle on Dec. 2, 2021. Héctor Alejandro Arzate/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Héctor Alejandro Arzate/WAMU/DCist

The D.C. Council voted Tuesday against a bill that would ban homeless encampment clearings in the city through until the spring, effectively killing legislation that received support from the D.C. attorney general, the ACLU, and at least five members of the council. The vote had been postponed earlier in the month, when nine councilmembers supported the decision to work on some of the bill's language and make it more specific.

The amended bill, introduced by Councilmember Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), would have prevented Mayor Muriel Bowser's administration from clearing homeless encampments through the start of hypothermia season until Apr. 1, 2022 — except for encampments that block public spaces, are located on school grounds or at a public playground, or have materials that pose a substantial health risk.

Seven councilmembers voted against the bill, while five voted for it. Those against it cited concerns with the appeals process proposed by the revised bill, as well as some of its language, which they criticized for being vague.

The Way Home DC, a local group that works to end chronic homelessness in D.C., slammed the vote against the bill in a statement.

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"Today, National Homeless Persons Memorial Day, the DC Council failed to protect the urgent needs of our unhoused neighbors living in encampments," the group said. "Because of today's vote, the District can continue with harmful encampment evictions, which are not only traumatic for residents, but also hinder D.C.'s ability to reach its own goal to end homelessness."

The legislation took aim at Bowser's pilot program, launched in the fall, which set out to permanently shut down five encampment sites at NoMa's L and M Street underpasses; New Jersey Ave and O St NW; and E and 20th streets NW. The goal, per Bowser's office, was to quickly move these residents into permanent housing, but critics suggested it was merely a way to clear encampments and did not truly have residents' best interest in mind. The city has already cleared the first three encampments — in NoMa and Truxton Circle — and the pilot's two remaining locations are in Foggy Bottom. Councilmembers and activists have criticized the clearings, which involve D.C. Police officers, bulldozers and dump trucks, and often upend residents' lives.

The amended bill would have given unhoused D.C. residents the ability to appeal for an administrative hearing ahead of a planned clearing or retroactively, if they had been "directly harmed" by a clearing. Additionally, it would have required the D.C. government to provide one lavatory and handwashing station for every 10 residents at the sites, along with fire extinguishers and trash cleanup five days a week. It also called for 15 days advanced notice ahead of planned removals and more data collection about the people who live at the sites.

"I think we have a real opportunity here to focus on housing, not evictions," said Councilmember Robert White (D-At-Large), who voted in favor of the emergency bill and noted that the majority of the people affected by encampment clearings are Black residents. White is also running for mayor.

Nadeau reiterated her stance from when she introduced the bill, that D.C. should not be clearing people from their homes during hypothermia season.

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh said she supported creating a pathway to housing for encampment residents but could not support the bill as it stands. "I'm not sure the bill is fully formed," Cheh said, adding that its language created a "legal right" to live in an encampment.

Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie raised issues with some of the revisions as well, saying it wasn't clear whether encampments cleared for health and safety concerns could "reappear" in those locations.

Elissa Silverman (I-At-Large), who originally proposed the vote postponement, said most of the criticism she heard during the revision period referenced changes that aren't specifically mentioned in it.

"I thought we could come to solutions, but what I realized is that I'm not sure there's a will to do that," Silverman said. "I thought we made headway. I thought we addressed things that were in the bill. I can't address things that aren't in the bill."

At least 69 people unhoused people died in D.C. this year, according to The Washington Post, and an annual vigil on Monday evening honored their lives. On Tuesday morning, protestors gathered at the John A. Wilson building downtown to demand action from Bowser and city legislators on the homelessness crisis.

In the days leading up to the vote, the Council Office of Racial Equity (CORE) analyzed the bill's impact on D.C.'s racial equity and concluded that it would "protect the health & wellbeing of Black, Indigenous, & other residents of color while encampment clearing is paused."

"The Executive's approach, design, and implementation of the CARE Pilot," CORE wrote in its report, "is deliberately cruel, unreasonably punitive, and fails to acknowledge the root causes of homelessness."

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

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