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A worker clearing out a homeless encampment with heavy machinery in the nation’s capital Monday managed to pick up a tent with an unhoused person still screaming inside, according to local media.
When the machine, described in reports as both a bulldozer and a front-end loader, made contact with the tent in Washington, D.C., a person “could be heard screaming,” local news site WTOP reported. Workers, police, and activists then rushed to the tent, video of the incident shows.
The affected homeless person, who has not been identified, was taken to a local hospital for evaluation, and D.C. Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Wayne Turnage told WTOP that they’re expected to be OK.
Turnage emphasized to WTOP that it won’t happen again. While Turnage did not immediately respond to VICE News’ request for comment, he told WTOP someone had checked the tent before trying to move it Monday, but that moving forward, the city would also place a worker by a tent after it’s been checked to see if there’s a person inside; that way, the worker can ensure that nobody re-enters the tent before bringing in heavy machinery.
But concerns are mounting about the future of the city’s pilot program to end some encampments by connecting their residents with housing and other social service programs, according to the Washington Post. The encampment that was cleared out Monday was the first of three that the city plans to take down, the Post reported, and 22 of the approximately 60 people living there have already moved into apartments. Eight others will get housing this week, while seven have received hotel rooms.
“While I’ve been informed that no one was hurt, if the resident had not been able to communicate their presence, they could have died,” Ward 1 Council Member Brianne Nadeau said of the incident on Twitter Monday.
“We are literally talking about life and death when working with encampments,” Nadeau continued. “And while I support funding housing solutions for our unhoused neighbors, as evidenced by the major investments I’ve fought for to help end homelessness, I continue to have concerns about the pilot program. I’ve expressed my concerns directly to Deputy Mayor Turnage and suggested we immediately revisit the protocols for the pilot.”
Even when cities have the best of intentions, these kinds of “sweeps” are often considered by homeless people and advocates to be the worst possible means of addressing the country’s affordable housing crisis. In most cities, tearing down one encampment typically doesn’t give homeless people somewhere to go—they’re just expected to move, period—and the process can destroy valuable items that a person might need to maintain their health and stability down the line: medications, documents necessary for welfare, wheelchairs, and more.
Almost 600 people have signed on to a letter that asks city officials to stop clearing encampments for the establishment of “no-tent zones,” particularly when everyone hasn’t been connected to housing yet, according to Axios.