Encampment cleanup paused for a day; residents resist
The woman climbed on top of a stack of furniture, determined. She lived on a dead-end sidewalk for three years and built it into her “apartment without walls” in a tunnel between Capitol Hill and Navy Yard. On June 28, she wanted to make it as hard as possible for employees from the Office of the Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services (DMHHS) to move her home. She gave her name as Tiny.
Service providers, waste removal trucks and DMHHS workers began arriving at the underpass at 8:30 a.m. on June 28 for a scheduled cleanup and “biowaste removal” of a 5-person encampment. Three of the encampment’s residents moved their belongings down the closed street by 10 a.m. when the cleanup officially started.
After about three hours, DMHHS paused its clearing of Tiny’s encampment and decided to return the next day. By then, DMHHS employees had thrown away Tiny’s kitchen cabinets and the tent she’d made into her bedroom. DMHHS returned June 29 and helped Tiny move belongings to the other side of the tunnel where she said she will rebuild.
DMHHS’s engagement at the tunnel is one in a pattern that has drawn criticism from homelessness advocates. According to the agency’s website, Tiny’s was the fifth encampment cleanup DMHHS conducted in June. At the start of that month, the National Park Service cleared 35 people from a nearby encampment outside Union Station.
While engagements often displace encampment residents, DMHHS allowed Tiny and her neighbors to re-establish their encampments in the underpass where they did not block the sidewalk.
The process still meant a day of packing up and resettling. Tiny would not be able to return to the spot she’d made home for three years because it blocked the sidewalk, DMHHS Deputy Chief of Staff Jamal Weldon said.
Tiny argued that her abode was well out of the way of any passersby, on a sidewalk that tapers off into a wall.
DMHHS told Tiny that the sidewalk was off limits based on city law. DMHHS did not provide Street Sense Media with a specific law by publication time, but a sign posted by the agency on site called blocking sidewalks “a public safety hazard.”
Weldon told Street Sense that the agency wanted to address potential hazards such as trash, hoarding and rodents in the area. City workers power washed the sidewalk, hauled away trash and resident belongings and sprayed for pests. Residents in the encampment told Street Sense that DMHHS informed them the area would be safe for pets again two hours after spraying.
Weldon said that while they could resettle parts of the underpass, any belongings not moved out of the way by the time DMHHS and the Department of Public Works (DPW) began cleaning an area would be removed.
Tiny and her neighbor, Apollo, experienced multiple cleanups in the area before, but this time was different. They wanted to resist. This place was their home. Apollo kept a green tent with a plant beside it, with small stones decorating a pathway.
“They basically just want us to be uncomfortable,” Apollo said the day before the clearing began.
He questioned why they had to move before the District addressed the trash that gathers from the neighboring park or the large concrete blocks piled in the underpass. Why spray for rats when his cat keeps them at bay?
Even if she wanted to move, Tiny had trouble moving her things because of third-degree burns she sustained in a cooking accident. Her medication made her drowsy and she slept for hours the day before the cleanup.
“The humidity, it makes me feel like once I sweat, it feels like I’m burning all over,” Tiny said.
She didn’t trust the promise that they could resettle. Encampment sweeps occurred every two weeks where she used to live in NoMa. She told DMHHS and outreach workers that she was told she could return there but found barricades blocking the previous NoMa encampment.
Tiny and Apollo hoped to resist DMHHS by refusing to remove their belongings. They stalled the cleanup until around 11:40 a.m. when Apollo complied, putting his cat in a carrier and moving his things aside before the team could spray for rats.
Tiny, however, continued resisting. In an attempt to protect her belongings, she climbed on top of a stack of furniture. After three minutes, Tiny came down from the pile as DMHHS workers began grabbing her possessions and throwing them into a garbage truck. Tiny rushed to grab what she needed.
She asked friends to stand in front of her furniture to block DMHHS and DPW. She thought of filling the garbage truck to capacity with trash and sat on more furniture.
Tiny’s apartment without walls sat at the end of the tunnel, made up of different rooms full with furniture thrown away by luxury apartment buildings in the area. The kitchen had a table with a cloth and centerpiece, cabinets for cans, and coolers for perishables. Tiny built the home with the ethos of “recycle, reuse, restore.”
“All this is someone else’s trash,” she said.
She told a representative from the Department of Behavioral Health that all she needed to leave would be a housing voucher and time with a U-Haul.
While Tiny fought to keep her property, Apollo came to help Tiny argue with the city workers, and DMHHS paused the cleanup and decided to come back the next day.
“I want to nap,” Tiny said. “I’m tired. I’m frustrated. I’m hungry. I need to find some food because they threw away three of my coolers.”
Weldon told Street Sense in an email that the cleanup “was paused due to the scheduled need of our DPW partners in another area of the District that could not be neglected.”
They stopped only after Tiny had lost most of her home, including coolers that kept shirts cool to help her burns. She’d lost the kitchen table and an entertainment center she hoped to sell for $50.
“She had all that stuff and they was quick to throw her stuff in the trash instead of picking it up. And it’s all her stuff. You got to think about that. What if that was your life? All you have is the things that you have,” Apollo said.
“Either no person wanted to help or they just wanted to destroy everything.”
When DMHHS and its partners returned the next morning, they helped Tiny move the rest of her belongings. Tensions had cooled, though Tiny had to resettle what she had left on the other side of the underpass.
She told Street Sense that DMHHS gave her a deadline of Tuesday to cleanup her belongings stacked at the end of the street, where they’d been moved out of the way. She hoped to rebuild her “apartment without walls” over that time.
Tiny said she doesn’t know what the future holds for her. She hopes to see a housing voucher by the fall
“Y’all done took every goddamn thing that y’all wanted to take — that I let y’all take,” she said.