A skid steer tractor is used to dismantle the encampment
DMHHS completing its cleanup at 10 Q Street. Photo by Sarah Watson

The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services (DMHHS) completed a full cleanup of an encampment at 10 Q St NW on June 15. Tents, garbage, and all remaining belongings were thrown away. 

The cleanup on the private property comes after 16 years of disuse and a delay to turn the land into an affordable housing complex. 10 Q St NW, just off of Florida Ave in the Truxton Circle neighborhood, was purchased by the city in 2005 but is currently unoccupied and deteriorating. Following proposals for the property, the city awarded the lot to Mi Casa, Inc, a nonprofit affordable housing developer, in 2018. Three years later, however, construction on the low-rent complex has not started.

According to DMHHS deputy chief of staff Jessica Smith, the office received a request from developers to remove three tents huddled near a portable toilet to allow access to the property. City employees visited the encampment to work with residents and offer resources in the weeks and day before the cleanup. The tents were leaning against the property and in an enclosed grassy courtyard next to the building. 

Unlike the trash-only cleanups that became common during the COVID-19 pandemic, full engagement of the city’s encampment protocol includes displacing any people in the area and disposal of all property within 200 feet of posted notices. The day before the cleanup, Leroy Farley, a resident of the encampment, called on the city to pay greater attention to people experiencing homelessness. 

[Read more: DC picked up the pace of full cleanups in April and May]

“Start listening to homeless people,” Farley said. “People turn their nose up to us. At least give us water. We have no bathroom, sometimes we have no clothes.”

Mi Casa is turning the two-story brick building and fenced-in vacant lots on either side into an affordable housing complex with retail space, according to DMHHS. Mi Casa owns nine other buildings across D.C. that provide long-term rental housing for low-income residents. In 2019, Mi Casa provided 213 affordable units and housed 1,445 residents.

Photo of the notice sign and some tents are visible along the fence line

A notice posted by DMHHS at the 10th Q St. NW encampment. All tents in the courtyard and leaning against the property were removed on June 15. Photo by Sarah Watson

“The organization came before the ANC and got support for the project and so it’s been awarded to them,” ANC5E Commissioner Bradley Thomas said. “They got support from the community generally to develop community housing there and mixed-use space.” According to Thomas, the property is still approximately a year away from being developed. 

In 2019, the Urban Institute estimated that the greater Washington metro area, including nearby counties in Virginia and Maryland, would need to build 375,000 affordable homes by 2030 to keep up with housing costs. Some of the goals outlined in their research became official targets, such as the housing objective of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments to build 320,000 affordable housing units by 2030.

Recent studies, however, show that this building goal is impossible at the current rate of affordable housing development in the District. Analysis by the Housing Association of Nonprofit Developers showed that only 12% of the Urban Institute’s target has been met, with the Washington area falling steeply behind its 2030 construction goals.

The encampment prior to removal

The encampment prior to removal. Photo by Sarah Watson

The city solicited plans for the property through a request for proposals process, according to Smith. In 2018, 10 Q Street NW was awarded to Mi Casa to develop the lot into Barnett-Adan apartments, an affordable housing project.

Mi Casa then received a further $100,000 in funding in 2020 for the complex through the Oramenta Predevelopment Loan fund. The loan fund is an effort of Bowser’s goal to construct 12,000 affordable D.C. units by 2025 and offers money to cover predevelopment costs for affordable housing in wards 5, 7, and 8.

[Read more: Can the mayor deliver on her call for equitable distribution of 12,000 new affordable housing units by 2025?]

While the city waits for more affordable housing, the tents and belongings of people experiencing homelessness are routinely thrown away. The D.C. government has conducted 13 full cleanups since April, 65% as many full cleanups and immediate dispositions (where no notice is given due to public health concerns) as it carried out during the first year of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “I guess I’ll have to find another spot,” Farley said the day before the cleanup. “Things can be replaced,” he replied when asked what he would do with his belongings.

None of the residents were present when the cleanup started at 10 a.m. According to Smith, one resident left before the cleanup after noting which items were garbage and could be removed. 

[Read more: A full sweep set to make way for a ‘streatery’ at Dupont Circle, 1.9 miles west of the Q Street property, was converted to a trash-only cleanup the previous week]

In addition to the request from developers, the June 15 cleanup followed complaints by Ward 5 residents and business owners near the Q Street NW and Florida Avenue NW intersection against the encampment. 

According to Thomas, the ANC commissioner, the encampment has raised complaints from nearby residents and business owners, who want the portable toilet removed in addition to the encampment. “There is a lot of discussion, people are not happy with the encampment and its location,” Thomas said. “People say it’s growing fast and somewhat out of control, and healthy conditions need to exist. There are possible unhealthy conditions.”

The city placed portable toilets across the District during the COVID-19 pandemic in encampments where 10 or more congregated in line with CDC guidelines. According to DMHHS, the Q Street portable toilet will remain for people in the surrounding area to utilize.

[Read more: What does reopening look like for DC’s homeless community?]

According to Thomas, housed residents of Ward 5 have been asking for an encampment cleanup for a while. People have lived on the otherwise unused property for the last two or three years, he said, but the Q Street encampment has grown larger in recent months. 

The skid steer tractor is used to demolish the encampment in this photo

The encampment being removed by DMHHS. Photo by Sarah Watson

“Encampment cleanups in the area don’t happen enough in my opinion,” Thomas said. “Things get out of control and people complain. Hopefully it will be a regularly scheduled event.” The last cleanup in the 5E ANC commission occurred in 2019, two blocks away from the Eckington property at North Capitol and O Street NE.

Thomas explained that while some local residents want the encampment removed, he has also received feedback calling for resources for people experiencing homelessness and living in encampments. 

“At the same time, there is the issue of a lack of housing, and people have to go somewhere. So it’s a mixed bag of opinions,” Thomas said. “We realize you cannot uproot folks with nowhere else to go, without any provisions.” 

Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie is working with District agencies and businesses to find long-term support for residents of the Q Street encampment. In his 2020 budget priorities letter to Bowser, McDuffie emphasized affordable housing and encouraged funding for housing subsidies.

McDuffie’s office attributed challenges in supporting encampment residents. “The pandemic has created significant challenges to effectively support residents experiencing homelessness and our office will continue working with stakeholders to find a solution that ensures everyone in the community gets the services they need,” a spokesperson told Street Sense Media. 

The morning after the cleanup, three of the four tents were gone, with the one remaining standing slightly off the property. No residents were at the site. According to DMHHS, residents who had tents in the courtyard next to the property will not be able to return, as the space is private property and a fence to the area is being fixed.

A tent and belongings more than 200 feet from the notice sign

A tent standing separate from the 10 Q Street NW property. This tent was not removed during the cleanup. Photo by Sarah Watson

Farley said he just wants a secure place to sleep at night, even if that means moving back to the encampment following the cleanup. 

“I’ll move anywhere that I feel safe,” he said. “A lot of places we can’t go to because people are afraid. People just need a safe haven, just a place to lay their head.”