The National Park Service is preparing to clear two homeless encampments in Washington, D.C., that are located on federal land, leaving the city government scrambling to find a new place for their inhabitants.
The park service expects to close the two camps, one located in Columbus Circle outside Union Station and the other at the intersection of New York Avenue and I Street Northwest, in early May after receiving multiple reports of criminal activity and violence. The park service has made a request to the city's Office for Health and Human Services to provide housing for the people at the camps, although it’s not entirely clear how that process will be carried out.
“While camping in national parks in Washington, D.C., is prohibited, the NPS has followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 recommendations and the District of Columbia’s practice of allowing encampments to remain on park land during the pandemic,” Mike Litterst, chief of communications for the National Mall and Memorial Parks, told the Washington Examiner. “The NPS is abiding by this recommendation whenever possible. However, it is our responsibility to consider the overall health and safety of all park users and neighbors and the condition of park resources.”
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The request builds on an existing effort the city enacted in the fall to combat homelessness in the district. The initiative, called Encampment Pilot, aims to provide services to homeless people and find them housing as they work to clear out different encampments.
The program initially set dates for clearing out the camps, but the city quickly nixed the deadline approach after receiving criticism from local lawmakers and other advocacy groups who complained of a hasty process.
“Prior to taking any action that would affect people living in encampments, we will give individuals ample notice, except in cases of immediately hazardous conditions,” Litterst said. “The NPS is committed to taking a social services-first approach and will continue to work closely with [the city] and community partners to connect people living in encampments with resources and housing.”
Encampment Pilot has been relatively successful since its debut, with 74 people receiving housing and another 17 being placed in hotels until they can find a permanent residence, according to Washington Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Wayne Turnage. Of the 139 total people approached by outreach officials, only 30 refused assistance.
It’s not entirely clear what the relocation process will look like, although Turnage's office told the Washington Examiner it would coordinate with the park service in the coming weeks to try to “limit the displacement of residents as much as possible.”
“We plan to do this by extending outreach and housing services to those residents who are willing to engage with members of the district’s encampment team and the outreach workers who are under contract to the Department of Human Services,” Turnage said.
The park service cleared a similar homeless encampment on Capitol Hill in 2021. The two areas being cleared in May have seen an uptick in crime in recent months, particularly the encampment located outside Union Station in Northwest D.C.
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Authorities arrested a homeless man in January in connection to swastikas that were painted on several exterior columns of the train station, noting they would investigate it as a hate crime. The man, Geraldo Pando, vandalized three other locations in northwest Washington later that day, police said.
The park service said it would close the encampments at the beginning of May, even if the local government hasn’t found temporary housing solutions for the camp residents, noting that it must “adhere to the closure schedule due to the imminent threats posed to public health and safety.”