A coalition of sixteen advocacy groups is calling on the Biden administration to stop a planned sweep just two blocks from the White House at McPherson Square scheduled for February 15.
The sweep targets one of the District’s largest encampments and could displace as many as 70 people from the park. Advocates said that the sweep is a direct contradiction to “housing first” initiatives that the Biden administration included in its federal strategic plan on homelessness.
District officials have argued that rising crime and arrests around the encampment are threatening public safety.
“Forced encampment evictions are not a solution to homelessness, and our leaders know this,” said Ann Oliva, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
“By accelerating the clearing of the McPherson Square encampment during hypothermia season, our federal and city leaders are retreating from their commitments to the McPherson residents… and tarnishing each administration’s achievements on homelessness to date,” Oliva continued.
Homeless encampment sweeps are operations undertaken by law enforcement officials and sanitation workers that forcibly remove people living in tents from a specific place. The Urban Institute describes these operations as “common” in urban areas.
Cities ranging from Denver to Bellingham, Washington, and Austin, Texas, have used sweeps to push people experiencing homelessness out of certain areas of the city. In many cases, local officials cited increasing crime rates around a specific camp as a reason for removing it.
But experts say the evidence to support claims that homeless camps increase crime rates is scant, at best.
Alexis Piquero, a sociologist at the University of Miami who studies policing and homelessness, told NPR that one reason encampments get associated with increased crime is that they are often located near crime-prone areas like liquor stores.
“What that means is that the area around those encampments is already criminogenic — it has the ingredients, if you will,” Piquero said.
A study from March 2022 by the University of California, San Francisco’s School of Medicine also suggested that homeless sweeps are not cost-effective. Moreover, the study said that sweeps do not address the root causes of homelessness and can make it harder for people living on the streets to find housing by displacing them from areas where social workers know where to find them.
One man who was recently swept from an encampment in Los Angeles told Invisible People that the local park rangers broke his phone, threw his clothes in the mud, and tore up his tent. Another man had to take unpaid leave from his job to collect his things before they were thrown away in a homeless sweep in North Hollywood.
“Properly helping our unhoused neighbors requires compassion and leading with the values that we profess to hold,” said Peggy Bailey, Vice President for Housing and Income Security at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
“People are in these circumstances because our systems have failed, and trust has been critically broken between government structures and the people they are meant to serve. It is imperative that we do better for our communities. Actions that forcibly remove our unhoused neighbors in this way only set us back,” Bailey continued.
District officials have been planning to sweep the encampment at McPherson Park for months.
It was initially planned to be swept on April 12, but the National Park Service moved the date up because social workers and mental health specialists felt unsafe visiting the site, according to the news website DCist. The sweep is also part of a broader aim for NPS to clear all encampments on federal property by the end of 2023, The Spectator reported.
A spokesperson for NPS told E&E News that roughly 30 arrests had been made around the camp in the past year, and six people have died. There have also been reports of other crimes, such as assaults, threats, and narcotics possession, the spokesperson said.
According to local reports, only a handful of the 70 people living at McPherson Park will enter stable housing following the sweep.
The planned sweep has also prompted protests from several dozen local activists who marched through the streets chanting “Stop the Sweeps,” according to local reports. Sam Myszkowski, one of the activists, told WTOP News that they opposed the sweep because it “puts people at risk when we clear parks out during hypothermia season.”
“It is a structural problem when we choose to put the appearance of this city over the wellbeing of its residents,” Myszkowski said.
How You Can Help
Homeless encampments are not the answer to the growing homeless crisis. Neither are forceful sweeps that often incite violence against the unhoused community.
That’s why we need you to contact your officials and representatives. Tell them you do not support using homeless sweeps to forcibly evict our unhoused neighbors from their homes. Tell them to instead focus on investing in social housing that can offer people the stability they need to exit homelessness once and for all.