Concerns of Homeless Food Runs Team after Encampment Eviction
Image Courtesy of DCist.com
By Mariah Solis and Katherine Plunkett
On February 15, National Park Services evicted unhoused residents at McPherson Square, the largest homeless encampment in D.C., two months earlier than originally scheduled. Campus Ministry’s Homeless Food Runs had a close relationship with the community, leaving several volunteers concerned for the now-displaced individuals.
Sophomore elementary education major Alison Perez, who co-leads Homeless Food Runs on Thursdays, commented on the eviction.
“Seeing my friends being forced to leave by city officials has been a very emotional experience for me,” Perez stated. “Many of the people don’t have anywhere else to go. They have created a community at McPherson Square in which they support each other and lift each other up.”
Campus Ministry’s Homeless Food Runs (HFR) team invites students to join them three times a week in bringing sandwiches, snacks, toiletries, and a few clothing items to the unhoused community in D.C. Due to these consistent visits, several of the volunteers built close friendships with the roughly 74 residents of McPherson Square’s encampment, many of whom own tents at the park and attend outdoor community activities like church services.
The encampment was originally scheduled to be cleared on April 12, after D.C.’s hypothermia season ended. This changed when Wayne Turnage, Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services (DMHHS), called for the timeline to be expedited. In a letter sent to the National Park Services, he claimed his decision is in response to “high levels of illegal drug and other criminal activity” in the area. He reached that conclusion after receiving reports from DMHHS staff and the U.S. Park Police, though he was not able to cite specific examples.
In preparation for the encampment clearing, a dozen of outreach workers parked a bus next to McPherson Square to create a temporary office. The caseworkers attempted to meet with the residents to convince them to apply for housing assistance, seek a D.C. shelter facility, or leave the area before the scheduled clearing.
However, many of the residents have lost faith in government assistance programs, resulting in a lack of trust in the caseworkers and a refusal to meet them. According to The Washington Post, many of the people at McPherson Square were already on a housing list, but it can take several years before an application is reviewed and the applicant is able to find housing.
The mistrust amongst the community also stems from this not being the first time the residents experienced an eviction. McPherson Square was considered the last resort after getting removed from previous encampments at NoMa, Union Station, or New Jersey Avenue.
“Seeing news articles and the media talk about my friends in impersonal ways upsets me,” stated Perez. “They haven’t heard the stories of struggle and sacrifice. They haven’t tried to listen to the people of McPherson Square.”
Sophomore philosophy major Michael Ellison, who co-leads Sunday Homeless Food Runs, shared similar grievances.
“I am frustrated with how it was handled,” Ellison stated. “The people of McPherson Square are my friends and so I am sad to see this happen to them.”
In reaction to the expedited eviction, sixty-three organizations signed a letter calling on D.C. officials to halt the eviction, in addition to others releasing public statements criticizing the rushed decision. Additionally, the National Coalition for Housing Justice, which consists of 15 organizations specialized in housing and homelessness, offered to assist in outreach that can refer residents to resources outside of what the city provides. Their offers were refused twice by DMHHS, however.
Two days prior to the clearing, the D.C. Advisory Neighborhood Commission approved a resolution calling for the cease of the eviction and for all people at McPherson Square to be housed. However, only 20 of the 74 people at the encampment received approval for temporary accommodations, despite the DMHHS stating that 47 residents were eligible for housing vouchers.
These vouchers are not an immediate solution, since many recipients still do not have a place to stay. There are currently 800 people in D.C. with a voucher who have not been placed and will not be anytime soon, including many of those at McPherson Square. While D.C. has enough funded housing vouchers to effectively end homelessness, according to Council member Christina Henderson, a lack of staff and caseworkers prevents them from being used.
With the eviction being moved up from April, those who wanted to help the McPherson Square residents relocate and find resources were given little time to organize and respond, including Homeless Food Runs.
“Unfortunately, given the nature of how the eviction was handled, we were unable to assist beyond praying and being a presence to the people there,” Ellison said.
“Searching for a new place to do homeless food runs has been hard. The city has closed down all the encampments. I have found that the homeless community is very spread out and separated now,” stated Perez. “When they are in encampments, they have people there to socialize with and communicate with. When they are all alone, they have no one and most people walk by ignoring them. It is extremely saddening to see these people ignored by people walking by everyday but also by the government officials.”
Going forward, Homeless Food Runs will be visiting individuals living near Union Station and the First Street Tunnel while keeping a lookout for other potential locations.
To volunteer with Homeless Food Runs, you can sign up on the Nest.