Good afternoon, Councilmember Henderson and members of the committee. My name is Jenna Israel, and I’m a tenant in Ward 1. I’m a DC Community Organizer at Jews United for Justice, a community of thousands of Jews and allies committed to advancing social, racial, and economic justice in DC. JUFJ is a member of the Way Home Campaign. My testimony today will address the violence that the Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services encourages and perpetrates in the form of encampment evictions.
Yesterday, I joined our partners at the Way Home Campaign to bear witness to the violence of the encampment eviction at McPherson Square. The Jewish people deeply understand the importance of bearing witness to atrocities against the most vulnerable. We understand the responsibility to remember, document, and most importantly speak truth to power about the brutality so that it never happens again. And yesterday was brutal. It was violent, and it was inhumane.
Two encampment residents who wanted to be able to remain in the place they lived were arrested yesterday, forcing them into a carceral system that will only make it more difficult for them to access housing and other resources in the future. Even those who weren’t arrested, as many witnesses have testified today, experienced real harm as they were torn away from resources like case workers and mutual aid, and from the community they built in the encampment. And just like any other eviction, the displacement on its own is painful.
Displacement is traumatizing whether it is due to eviction, gentrification, or other reasons. Encampment evictions are particularly violent and dehumanizing. Yesterday, I watched encampment residents pick through their belongings and decide what to take with them (for many of them, to an unknown destination, not to housing or shelter) and what to leave behind. Then I watched National Park Service workers shovel people’s remaining belongings and their tents — their homes — into garbage trucks as if it was trash. It’s heartbreaking to see people forced out of their homes and not even be treated as people in the process.
While this particular eviction was carried out by the National Park Service, the District government bears the primary responsibility for this and many other encampment evictions. First, the mayoral administration’s policies have failed to address our current housing crisis. The reason that so many of our neighbors are sleeping outside is because housing in DC is simply too expensive, and because affordable housing programs have not been implemented or funded appropriately. Thousands of housing vouchers remain unused. Thousands of public housing units are vacant and unlivable. The Housing Production Trust Fund is used to line the pockets of developers who fail to build the needed deeply affordable housing that the HPTF was meant to create.
Second, the Mayor and Deputy Mayor choose over and over again to devote resources, time, and effort to violent and unnecessary encampment evictions, instead of using resources, time, and effort to actually support their unhoused constituents. The DC government has a moral duty to meet the needs of DC residents, whether or not those residents are homeowners or campaign donors.
Third, the Council has failed our unhoused neighbors by neglecting to rein in the administration through oversight or through legislation. In December 2021, the majority of the Council voted down legislation that would have taken a step toward ending the inhumanity of encampment evictions. Since then, many encampment residents have been evicted, and many unhoused people have died without the dignity of a roof over their heads. The Council failed to bear witness to the atrocity, failed to speak truth to power, and time and time again has failed to use its own power to protect the lives and wellbeing of some of its most vulnerable constituents.
JUFJ looks forward to the Committee’s plans to end encampment evictions in DC and to take actions that actually meet the health and safety needs of DC’s unhoused residents. Let’s build the DC we all want and deserve, a DC where we choose care over violence and support over criminalization. Thank you for the opportunity to testify.