Black and white photo of woman standing in park
Photo by Benjamin Burgess / kstreetphotographydc.com

The sudden closure of Franklin Park on July 1 was nothing but an indication to the homeless community that it is time to pack it up and leave. I used to sleep over there for years. This was not the first time the city government has tried to throw homeless people out of downtown.

The newly renovated museum next to the park, which was expected to open this year, was a homeless shelter when it closed in 2008. It’s been unused since. And there are no low-barrier shelters left for men in Northwest D.C. 

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, several blocks away from the park, was where many homeless people went to get through the day. It was even a regular stop for the city’s daily shelter van. But the library has been closed since 2017. It feels intentional to close the park, the only other downtown refuge, before the library reopens.

This is a strategy employed by some landlords, particularly slumlords, if they want to get rid of a tenant but don’t have the right to kick them out. Just make them so uncomfortable that they leave on their own: turn off the water, turn off the heat, don’t fix anything.

What are our city’s values? Didn’t Mayor Muriel Bowser run on a platform of helping the homeless community?

And on top of that, there’s a pandemic going on. People are in greater need and at greater risk for health problems. Why would you block off something so essential?

But local officials still sanctioned an encampment clean-up in partnership with the park service, something the CDC says not to do until the health crisis ends.

They still moved an informal meeting place for obtaining donations and services. Many churches, volunteers, and donors have shown up at Franklin Park from different places of the DMV area to help the homeless community. Now some of them might be able to instead set up booths on a nearby street — a street right around the corner from where protesters continue to be harassed by police at Black Lives Matter plaza. That will not put people at ease or encourage them to trust service providers and case managers there. Social workers next to police officers just won’t work. It comes across as  intimidation. How do I know the outreach workers aren’t working with the cops?

And they still took away a massive peaceful place that had enough space for people to stay out of the way while “social distancing.” Keep in mind this is while Lafayette Square was fenced, opened and fenced off again, and the use of force at the protests has driven people away from that park, too.

The city should have put a hold on the project until the health crisis was over.

Colly Dennis is an artist and vendor with Street Sense Media.