On January 16th, the District government forced more than 30 of our most vulnerable neighbors out of their homes to create a “pedestrian passageway” during the coldest month of the year, despite the fact that winter weather was forecast for the following days.  In fact, nearly every day since this mass eviction from the K Street NE underpass in NoMa, there has been a Hypothermia Alert called by the same government that carried out the eviction.  This cruel and unnecessary displacement occurred in an underpass on K Street, NE, which as of early January had 40 tents housing people experiencing homelessness.  This area was one of only three relatively dry, safe refuges in the rapidly gentrifying NoMa neighborhood available to people who cannot go into shelter and have nowhere else to live.  The actions of the District forced many people to move their tents to the already over-crowded underpasses on L and M Streets, NE.  Other K Street residents, however, simply disappeared when the government arrived last Thursday, possibly to somewhere much more dangerous, and possibly without their tents and belongings, which may have been destroyed in this quest to rid K Street of any evidence of homelessness.

To be clear, we support pedestrians, including people who use wheelchairs and strollers, in having clear and safe access on DC streets. We believe that, with an open dialogue, DC could have solved that problem without displacing encampment residents permanently. We also note that there are many sidewalks in DC that are impeded by overgrown trees, scooters or construction signs where this same sense of concern and urgency to remove the barriers does not seem to exist. Finally, even if there was no quick solution that balanced the interests of all involved, neighbors could have walked one block out of their way while DC worked to ensure that every individual living in that underpass had somewhere else to go. Instead, DC government prioritized the needs of housed neighbors who had alternative routes open to them over the needs of encampment residents who had no alternative home.

The irony of the District of Columbia government inflicting the violence of displacement upon some of its poorest citizens just before the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday apparently escaped our Mayor, who tweeted tone-deaf messages about the importance of helping others in honor of the holiday, right after the NoMa clearing orchestrated by her own administration.  We can only imagine that Dr. King would have been dismayed and horrified by these actions, and would have stood side by side with the encampment residents, like many members of the community did, to try to protect them from a government whose role is supposed to be helping rather than harming its neediest residents.

The government’s actions in NoMa last week, like the twice weekly encampment sweeps conducted by District agencies year-round, were initiated and overseen by the office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services (DMHHS), Wayne Turnage.  These so-called “engagements” create incredible stress and chaos for encampment residents, while failing to address the root causes of street homelessness.  In fact, over the past two years in NoMa the number of tents has quadrupled, despite, or because of, the relentless clearing schedule.  The dangers of these aggressive clearing practices were exposed in November 2019, when workers from the Department of Public Works, under the orders of DMHHS, attempted to throw not one, but two tents with human beings inside of them, into the garbage during a NoMa cleanup.

Against this background, and despite the fact that the vast majority of the tents in the K Street underpass had been there for two or more years, DMHHS chose January, right before the annual Point-in-Time count, to suddenly claim the tents created an emergency which had to be dealt with immediately and permanently. The District’s approach exacerbated the situation by failing to provide any viable alternatives for the people it displaced, other than telling them to use the DC shelters. The shelters that Deputy Mayor Turnage and his staff offered as options for encampment residents are beset by problems and considered filthy, chaotic, and/or dangerous by many people living on the street. Many of our clients who live with mental illness or a history of trauma have told us they can never go to DC shelters. For others, shelters are not options because  they do not allow couples, pets, or more than two small bags of belongings.   Further, as Deputy Mayor Turnage should know, the shelter system does not have the capacity to accommodate the more than 600 people who currently live on the streets of Washington, DC.

Make no mistake—last week’s clearing and permanent ban on any tents or belongings in the K Street underpass was a deliberate choice, made by a Bowser administration that claims to want to end homelessness but has never adequately funded its own plan to do so, Homeward DC, in its proposed budgets.  By making the choice to move forward in the face of widespread opposition and negative media attention, Mayor Bowser demonstrated that her allegiance lies with the residents of the luxury housing surrounding the NoMa encampments, rather than with encampment residents whose lives and safety depend on being able to sleep in the underpasses when they have nowhere else to go. While the District cited pedestrian safety as the rationale for its actions, in reality it made a clear and regrettable choice to prioritize the wants of some vocal and comfortably housed NoMa residents over the serious needs of encampment residents.

Many people have misconceptions about why street homelessness keeps going up in one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the country.  The misperception is due in part to the vitriolic and demonizing stereotypes peddled by organizations like the NoMa BID, which published an open letter regarding the underpass encampments in August 2019. The key factor underlying the increase in homelessness in D.C. and elsewhere over the past several years, however, is simple—an extreme shortage of truly affordable housing.  Cities like DC reward developers of luxury apartments, often for political reasons, and prioritize the creation of those units over subsidizing housing for people in deep poverty.  This has led to a glut of luxury units in places like NoMa.  Cranes are ubiquitous in the District now, and pricey new developments continue to go up, adding to the supply of housing that is unattainable for the vast majority of DC residents, and certainly not for people experiencing homelessness.

The difficulty of accessing the limited supply of housing subsidies available for people who live on the streets was illustrated by one K Street encampment resident who we spoke with last week.  It had taken him months to get through the lengthy screening process to qualify for a Permanent Supportive Housing subsidy, and was finally ready to be assigned to a unit, when he was arrested on a minor charge and spent several months in jail.  Not only did this cause him to lose all his belongings that he had with him on the streets, but when he was discharged from the DC Jail, no effort was made to connect him to any services or housing.  Now that he is back on the streets, he must start the process of connecting with services, qualifying for housing, and navigating the “Coordinated Entry” bureaucracy all over again. This process, which prioritizes people who stay in the District’s shelter system by setting aside the majority of resources for them, combined with the insufficient resources dedicated to housing, means that the vast majority of the people in the encampments will have to wait months, if not years, to get into housing, even if they score higher for housing than someone in shelter.

Mayor Bowser often makes statements opposing the politics of our current President.  Yet Mayor Bowser’s statement in response to concerns about the creation of the pedestrian passageway was: “tents and living in tents is not permitted in the District of Columbia…[and are] not safe for the surrounding community” and her approach to street homelessness has become increasingly punitive in nature. This moves her much closer to President Trump, who is urging cities to get tough on street homelessness or they may lose federal housing money, than she may be comfortable with on this issue. (“Advocates say that they expect an executive order on homelessness to assign new resources to police departments to remove homeless encampments and even strip housing funds from cities that choose to tolerate these encampments.”)

If you agree the District of Columbia can and must do better, please contact Mayor Bowser (mayor@dc.gov), Deputy Mayor Wayne Turnage (wayne.turnage@dc.gov), and Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen (callen@dccouncil.us) to ask that the District:

  1. Suspend its encampment clearings during Hypothermia Season (November 1 through March 31);
  2. Remove the Pedestrian Passageway signs and promise not to immediately dispose of people’s belongings if they move back; and
  3. Protect personal belongings or life-saving items such as tents from destruction unless they are clearly marked as trash and focus on cleaning around encampments and providing real offers services to encampment residents, including meaningful access to shelters and housing.

You can also attend the oversight hearing at the DC Council on the Deputy Mayor on Health and Human Services on March 5 at 10AM in Room 412 of 1350 Pennsylvania Ave NW. Sign up to testify by contacting Malcolm Cameron: mcameron@dccouncil.us or 202-654-6179.

The K Street NE underpass clearing in the media:

“District ‘Cleared’ the K St. NE Underpass. Now What?” AFRO, January 23, 2020

“ ‘There Is No Plan For Us:’ D.C. Permanently Clears K Street Encampment, Displacing Dozens” DCist, January 16, 2020

“Northeast DC homeless encampment cleared from K Street underpass” WTOP, January 16, 2020

“D.C. clears longtime homeless encampment near Union Station” The Washington Post, January 16, 2020

“As City Prepares to Clear NoMa Underpass, Residents Pack Up and Look for Solutions” Washington City Paper, January 15, 2020

“Dozens of homeless  people will be forced off a Northeast Street this week” WJLA, January 13, 2020

“No room on the street: D.C. orders homeless out of underpass in fast-developing neighborhood” The Washington Post, January 10 , 2020

“D.C. government to remove tents, belongings of homeless to create ‘pedestrian passageway’” The Washington Times, January 8, 2020

“D.C. to Permanently Clear NoMa Underpass to Make Way for Pedestrians” Washington City Paper, January 7, 2020

“D.C. Says Homeless Encampments Will Be Permanently Cleared From Under One NoMa Bridge” WAMU, January 7, 2020