D.C. Cleared Scores of Homeless from McPherson Square. Then Kept Evicting Them.

Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson
Sharon K. Brown, 62, zips her tent closed for the night after setting up a new campsite on New York Avenue NE on May 12.

WASHINGTON – By the time two white Priuses branded with D.C. flags pulled up to the curb outside her tent, Sharon K. Brown had already finished her first cigarette and asked God for a miracle.

She lit another as District officials ambled onto the lawn where her tent was pitched. Then Brown began to pace. Underfoot, she could feel the uneven blades of grass she had started to trim with a pair of store-bought scissors. She had stopped when, the day before, she’d been told she had 24 hours to move.

“Come on, Heavenly Daddy, come on,” she prayed as the men approached. “I need your help.”

“Ma’am, would you like to be connected with services?” asked one. “We can help with that.”

Behind him, a D.C. police officer climbed out of his cruiser.

“I don’t need that. I just need y’all to leave me alone or help me move and tell me where I can go. I mean,” she paused. “What do you want me to do?”

Brown, 62, is one of the dozens evicted in February from the city’s largest homeless encampment, which had grown in the shadow of the White House at McPherson Square. Although D.C. officials deemed more than 60 percent of them eligible for housing assistance, less than 30 percent ultimately received some kind of housing – including a bed in one of the city’s shelters. The majority remained on the street.

In an effort to escape the cycle of evictions that afflict the estimated more than 800 unsheltered adults in the nation’s capital, Brown had made her way to this grassy slice of Northeast Washington called Loomis Park – a place she hoped would be far enough out of sight to afford her some peace.

But in mid-May, she learned there was no outrunning the District’s encampment enforcement. City data shows that D.C. has increasingly leaned on an emergency protocol to displace unsheltered adults with little notice. This practice has largely been used to clear solo campers, even those in the District’s most far-flung corners. Using this protocol, D.C. has forced some of Brown’s former McPherson neighbors to move as many as six times since February.

Advocates say the practice, known as an “immediate disposition,” has made it harder for outreach workers to keep track of individuals and connect them to services. It also makes it virtually impossible for unhoused residents to assert their rights or challenge the city’s actions, lawyers said. City officials, who have been unable to contain the rapid spread of encampments since the start of the pandemic, say the increase in emergency clearings indicates a rise in health and safety hazards among those who live on the street – not a shift in D.C. enforcement.

But quick-turn evictions like these are becoming “pervasive” in cities across the country, said Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Many “progressive cities” have cracked down on unsheltered homeless adults, he said, using “more sophisticated” strategies to clear them from city parks and sidewalks without “addressing structural issues, like lack of housing, lack of mental health care, prison discharge policies.”

In Loomis Park, Brown didn’t understand how the eviction could happen so fast. Before, at McPherson, the National Park Service had given them two weeks’ notice, in line with city protocols.

“Didn’t they put a sign out here to give you a warning or whatever?” asked one of the men, a worker from the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health.

“No,” Brown said, shaking her head emphatically. “They just came out here yesterday and told me I had to leave. I didn’t even know who was ordering me out.”

For three months, Brown had danced in the grass to Christian pop music, greeted dogs and their owners on morning walks and searched for a church to attend on Sundays. There were no donation drops for food or supplies on this side of town – and Brown refused to panhandle – so she bought food and toiletries from nearby businesses using her Social Security income. She had built a routine here. A life.

Now, she was being told to leave all of that behind. Desperate to persuade someone – anyone – to let her stay, Brown implored the growing crowd of caseworkers and officials semicircled around her.

“I’m a woman of God; I spread joy and love everywhere I go; I’m clean; I’m a good neighbor. Ask the neighbors – they’ll tell you I don’t cause any problems,” Brown said, her voice frantic.

Jamal Weldon, who oversees the District’s response to homeless encampments for the Office of the Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services, told her it wasn’t about the neighbors, that no one had even called in a report.

“What’s the problem then?” Brown asked.

Brown was camped illegally in a park managed by the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, Weldon explained. That gave the District license to remove her at will. They could use force, he said, including the District’s process for involuntary emergency psychiatric hospitalization known as FD-12. But Weldon said he didn’t want it to come to that.

“I have no help, nowhere to go,” Brown cried. “You’re telling me I have to leave, but how? Go where? Please, help me.”

Caseworkers from Community Connections, the nonprofit contracted by the city to provide homeless outreach in parts of Northeast Washington, stepped forward. After they showed Brown a spot on a map where they said she could go, Brown agreed to leave, but told them she needed more time to pack.

Weldon paused, then agreed to a 24-hour postponement. As he turned to leave, he said to a reporter, “Don’t say the District isn’t compassionate.”

At the bottom of the hill, Brown sank to her knees and gripped the earth.

The rise of ‘immediate dispositions’

Brown had spent two years living on the street in the early 2000s, amid a particularly bad bout of mental illness following the dissolution of her first marriage. She found shelter in the form of a hospital bed after she carved the words “help me” into her forearm with a sharp blade. In the time since, Brown said, she had improved significantly with treatment, regained permanent housing and worked for a time as a home health aide for seniors in Michigan, her home state. She came to D.C. in 2021. After a brief stay in a hotel, she moved into a tent at a sprawling encampment in Foggy Bottom. When that encampment was cleared, she walked with her belongings to McPherson Square.

As Brown settled in, a pattern emerged: Every few months, waves of unhoused adults cleared from other sites such as Franklin Square, Scott Circle, K Street and Union Station poured into the park, filling the turf that stretches across a city block.

That same year, as the pandemic-era moratorium that barred the District from forcing the homeless to relocate expired, D.C. conducted 37 encampment clearings, according to data from the deputy mayor’s office. About 16 percent of them were immediate dispositions, which allow the city to clear an area and even establish a permanent no-camping zone with little or no notice. These sweeps are typically not posted on the city’s public schedule for encampment clearings and rarely attract the attention of the advocates, media or faith groups that usually attend larger street evictions.

Historically, homeless advocates said, this process had been used sparingly, for emergencies. But in 2022, outreach workers began to notice a shift. That year, D.C. cleared 96 encampment sites, city data shows. More than 60 percent of them were done using immediate dispositions. Halfway through 2023, the District is on pace to exceed last year’s numbers. Nearly 40 people have been pushed out of small encampment sites around the city using the emergency designation, according to city data.

Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Wayne Turnage, whose office oversees the District’s encampment response, said the increase in these quick-turn clearings indicates there have been more health and safety violations as encampments have proliferated.

“The District of Columbia has been doing immediate dispositions since before I became deputy mayor; that protocol has not changed,” Turnage said. “If we’re doing it, it’s because we have observed a situation where public safety and health are certainly at risk.”

On the day McPherson Square was cleared in February, Brown paced the perimeter of the park, her silver-white hair shaking loose from her hat as she spat Scripture at service providers and U.S. Park Police.

After National Park Service officials closed the park, they erected fences and signs, rehabbed the grass and planted neat rows of tulips. The park’s former residents scattered. Months later, Turnage said, outreach workers have been unable to locate about 18 of the 74 who had been living at McPherson Square.

Continual, rapid encampment sweeps have only made it harder to keep track of McPherson’s former residents. Sometimes, said Danica Hawkins, the encampment coordinator for homeless outreach nonprofit Miriam’s Kitchen, the caseworkers assigned to provide support to homeless campers find out about immediate dispositions mere hours before they take place. That means they can’t always provide adequate support – belongings, including documents, may be lost in the shuffle; unhoused people may move into a different nonprofit’s jurisdiction, disrupting ongoing efforts to house them. Some former McPherson residents the city has uprooted multiple times have been approved for a housing voucher. Even as they wait to be matched with a caseworker or an apartment, they are at risk of being displaced again.

Roman Elby shares his tent with his fiancée, and tries to stay in areas where he feels less afraid for their safety. In the months since the couple was pushed out of McPherson, caseworkers said, Elby has moved at least four times. Each time, caseworkers said, Elby changes the sort of site where he camps – a rotation that keeps him moving from city property to federal property to abandoned private property in an attempt to avoid giving officials justification to conduct an eviction.

As of late May, Elby had been approved for a permanent supportive voucher that would allow him and his fiancée to eventually move into an apartment. There was one problem: Caseworkers had temporarily lost track of Elby, who moved again after being told to leave the grounds of a shuttered storefront in Shaw.

“We’re like, I don’t know how it’s possible that people we know from out here have gotten housed – twice, in some cases – and we’re still out here, just sitting ducks,” Elby said recently in his tent in Shaw. “It’s dangerous as hell out here. I’m scared every day, especially for my girl.”

Max, 33, who is being identified by only her first name to avoid jeopardizing her housing assistance, had bounced from Foggy Bottom to downtown D.C. and back again, following the closure of McPherson Square. In total, she said, she’s lived in five encampments since becoming homeless in 2020.

Although she also had been approved for a voucher, Max said, her only option when McPherson Square was shut down was “bridge housing,” a dormitory-style stopgap housing arrangement, or going to a shelter. She chose, instead, to set up her tent in the growing Foggy Bottom encampment, surrounded by people she knew. Over the last few months, that encampment has grown from a handful to more than two dozen people.

Despite having more housing vouchers to distribute than at any time in recent history, D.C. has seen its efforts to house the homeless hampered by a dearth of outreach workers.

Shelley Byars, 45, moved to McPherson from Oxon Run Park in Southeast Washington. When she arrived last June, Byars pitched her tent on the southernmost edge of the park, right next to Brown’s green-and-white tepee adorned with rainbow pinwheels.

After the clearing, Byars also wound up solo-camping in a park in Northeast Washington. And like Brown, she was once again forced to move.

Byars, who has been waiting to see the fruits of a housing voucher she has been approved for since last summer, was given the standard two weeks’ notice to move from a small triangle park in Brookland that the District had turned into a summertime spray park. She set up camp again nearby, but days later, she said, she awoke to someone outside her tent telling her she had to move “or I’ll lose my life.” A few days after that, she returned to her tent to find it torn down and soaked by rain. Her belongings inside were ruined.

The repeated evictions leave “this question of where on earth do people go?” said Amber Harding, executive director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.

Immediate dispositions “move people along without really working on the underlying issues or working to develop trust or offer housing,” she said. She called the tactic “an abuse of that power by the Bowser administration.”

“There should be an opportunity for a resident or an advocate to say, ‘Hey, what the government is suggesting here is not justified. There is no health or safety risk, and you shouldn’t be able to take all their stuff,'” Harding said. “But because of how fast these things happen, there is no opportunity for that.”

The District is not required to give any notice before executing an immediate disposition, but Turnage said officials often aim to give 24 hours’ warning to homeless residents and other agencies as a courtesy. But in some instances, he said, that may not be possible.

“If we come up on something that is, for example, someone burning an open flame under a bridge with propane tanks, we’re not going to give anyone notice for that – we’re going to shut that down,” Turnage said.

Resident and caseworker input ignored

As Brown pleaded with the city officials who had come to evict her, neighbors peered out from nearby homes.

Kevin Humbles, 63, looked out from his front porch. “She wasn’t causing any problems,” he said, shaking his head. “This isn’t my D.C.”

Hadiyah Muhammad walked over in her slippers to ask if Brown was all right. Muhammad, 69, who lives down the street and sits on the board of the United Planning Organization, a nonprofit aimed at helping low-income Washingtonians, tried to reassure a crestfallen Brown: “You know, this is coming from the mayor,” Muhammad said. “Not the people around here.”

Brown said she tried to be a good neighbor; she kept her radio down after dark and double-bagged her trash and left it curbside on pickup days. She doesn’t drink or do hard drugs. She even adorned the front of her tent with a tiny American flag.

“I tried to tell them that the Lord brought me out here,” Brown said.

Hawkins, of Miriam’s Kitchen, said that beyond occupying a city park or being near a school, other reasons city officials have given her for the emergency sweeps include correcting a sidewalk obstruction or clearing biohazards. Once, Hawkins said, a person was given a day to vacate because they had painting supplies and the District said the paint was hazardous material, “because they could mix and cause harm.”

Hawkins questions the legitimacy of some of the justifications used to deploy immediate dispositions. In March, she pointed out in an email to the deputy mayor’s office that it didn’t have to remove a resident to clear a sidewalk. There was more than three feet of sidewalk space beside the tent, she wrote. She also offered to speak with the person about waste removal.

District officials told Hawkins to stay in her lane.

“As an employee of Miriam’s, you are not in a decision-making role regarding an evaluation of whether the conditions at a particular encampment meet the criteria for an immediate disposition,” Turnage wrote in an email to Hawkins. “While sidewalk clearance is one factor, 3 feet is far short of what is considered acceptable clear passage.”

Sidewalks in D.C. must allow for a minimum of six feet of pedestrian passage, according to D.C. Department of Transportation guidelines.

The deputy mayor said his staff is “empowered” to decide on the fly whether a particular encampment needs to be cleared or whether concerns can be addressed in another way. But, Turnage said, caseworkers are not qualified to make such determinations.

“Caseworkers are not the experts. They don’t have a background in determining if something is in violation of the city administrator’s protocol,” Turnage said. “They’re entitled to their opinion, of course. Opinions are like noses – everybody’s got one.”

A new home

After the crowd of D.C. officials left Loomis Park and Brown wiped away her tears, she set off to check out the new site the Community Connections caseworkers had described to her.

When she reached New York Avenue NE, she surveyed the area. Semi trucks and ambulances screamed down the road. A small gaggle of men lingered outside a nearby liquor store.

“Well,” Brown said with a shrug, “at least I’ll be closer to Target.”

The next morning, Brown ripped open the nylon door held together by safety pins, as a trio of caseworkers ambled down the grassy knoll toward the Christian pop music pouring from Brown’s tent. She bounced and sang as she carried bags of clothes and plastic bins out onto the turf.

“Hallelujah, we are not alone, God really loves us,” Brown sang, pushing a small table-and-chair set into the keep pile.

The day before, Weldon had told Brown that the short extension he granted was a strict one: Brown needed to be gone by 9 a.m. or the District would trash her belongings and forcibly remove her.

“I don’t know how we’re going to do this without a vehicle, I really don’t,” Brown said, loading what she could into a small collapsible cart.

She hauled the cart to the sidewalk, picked up a piece of plywood she had used as a welcome mat – “I carried this baby from Foggy Bottom to McPherson Square on my head,” she explained to the group – and pulled up each of her tent’s metal stakes. The Community Connections workers told her to take what she could carry, that the rest of her stuff would “magically appear” at the new site, where they would meet her.

Brown pulled her cart, piled high with bags, down to New York Avenue. She walked past broken bottles, mangled car parts and heaps of trash on the side of the road. As her belongings came into view, she saw three young men picking through bins and opening boxes.

“Hey,” Brown shouted, dropping the cart handle and racing toward the men. “Hey, that’s my stuff!”

One of the men had her phone charger in his hands, the other a box of Cheez-Its.

She let them keep the snacks.

The caseworkers “said they couldn’t transport me with my stuff, but they must have driven it down here,” Brown said, shaking her head as she checked the bins for any missing items.

Community Connections declined to comment.

Brown paced the dirt, looking for a level patch where she could pitch her tent. It was littered with empty glass and plastic bottles, crushed beer cans and a large plank of wood. Brown got to work: She bagged the trash, pulled up weeds and used a chipped piece of discarded brick to hammer metal stakes into the hard earth. By the time she was finished, her hands were bloodied and raw.

Two metal signs nearby declared the site closed on Aug. 16, 2022: “Any property not stored or moved from within 200 feet of this notice by the scheduled clean time is subject to removal and immediate disposal.”

A man Brown recognized from her earliest days on the street – Abraham – drifted over to see who was moving in. Brown offered him half of her lunch and as the two sat together, eating chicken strips and fries, Abraham’s story unspooled. He used to live in a tent at this very spot, he said. Then the city kicked him out. Now he sleeps on a bench nearby, unsheltered.

Brown hung her head.

“Where do they expect people to go?” she asked. She sighed, stood and strode back to her freshly pitched tent. She picked up the table-and-chair set and moved it inside. She lit a cigarette.

“Don’t worry.” she said, as much to herself as anyone else. “God will take care of us.”