A woman in a "Black Lives Matter" mask speaks while two other people hold up a banner behind her that says "DON'T HOST HATE." The Capitol Hilton hotel can be seen in the back-right corner.
A Jan.14 press conference held by activists outside of the Capitol Hilton hotel on 16th Street NW. Screenshot courtesy of Shutdown D.C.

While organizers celebrated a win in their campaign to keep pro-Trump groups out of the District during the inauguration, some advocates worried that the unhoused community was being left behind.

Airbnb announced on Jan. 13 that it canceled all reservations for D.C. during the week of the presidential inauguration, citing security concerns from Mayor Muriel Bowser and federal authorities. Advocates interviewed for this article knew of at least nine unhoused people who had Airbnb reservations before this decision was made.

Nonprofits told DCist that they are struggling to find shelter for people experiencing homelessness to keep them from living outside while the security risk is so high. Bowser has urged residents to stay away from the downtown area during Inauguration and for visitors to stay away from the District altogether after a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol building in early January. 

Shutdown D.C., a group that co-organized the campaign calling for Airbnb to cancel the reservations of white nationalists shared resources to help people seeking food, shelter, or other financial support. The group’s Twitter account shared a document listing various mutual aid groups around the District to “support one another.”

Safety concerns

Trupti Patel, the ANC 2A03 commissioner who supported the campaign and spoke at a Shutdown D.C. press conference on Jan. 14, said Airbnb’s decision to cancel reservations and prevent new ones was the best option to keep people in the District safe. 

“At the end of the day, Airbnb had to implement the policy that it needed to because we needed to keep the Nazis out of this city,” she said. “You can’t have members of our community, whether housed or unhoused, being terrorized in this neighborhood.”

She added that marginalized groups and unhoused people alike would be at risk from visitors to D.C. and the two groups shouldn’t be pitted against each other. If the D.C. government had sufficiently housed individuals because of the pandemic or the District-wide state of emergency, Patel said, unhoused people wouldn’t be at a disadvantage in the current situation. 

“We intentionally did not call for unilateral cancellation of reservations because we know many unhoused folks are using Airbnbs to stay safe this week,” Black Lives Matter D.C., the other co-organizer of the campaign, said in an email newsletter to its supporters. “We call on hosts to honor these existing reservations. We will be reaching back out to all hosts we’ve contacted so far to ask them to keep housing-insecure neighbors safe. If other organizations want to offer to house this weekend please contact “[email protected]

The D.C. Department of Human Services will do outreach next week to let people experiencing homelessness know that encampments might be disturbed during next week’s events. Three days ago, an anchor for a right-wing news outlet shared a video of homeless people who live in tents near the Capitol calling them suspicious. It has been shared more than 9000 times. The man who posted the video has collaborated with whites supremacists, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, and promoted the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that led a North Carolina man to travel to D.C. and fire an AR-15 rifle inside Comet Ping Pong in 2016. 

A Tweet that says "Why is law enforcement allowing a suspicious tent village right across the street from the Capitol?" and shows several tents and people in a small patch of grass next to the road in Capitol Hill. The name and handle of the user who posted the Tweet have been blurred.

Screenshot taken on Jan. 15. The video was shot from within a car stopped in traffic. EDITOR’S NOTE: Street Sense Media does not link to profiles or platforms that share hate speech or misinformation.

D.C. government preparations

A city official told Street Sense Media that DHS is also pairing unhoused people with donated Airbnb’s through a nonprofit partner. DHS was not able to be reached to confirm but At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson later shared the same information on Twitter late Friday night.

“DHS has authorized outreach providers to do enhanced intervention and bill DHS for reimbursement for things like transportation, hotel rooms, pet boarding, food,” Henderson said in her Tweets, elaborating on the city’s efforts to protect people experiencing homelessness. “We know there are lots of reasons some people don’t wish to come into shelter, & DHS has been working with partners to minimize the disruption Inauguration presents.

According to the city official who first alerted Street Sense Media to DHS’s efforts, the department authorized service providers to pay their staff overtime to conduct outreach regarding these resources over the weekend “as long as reasonable and safe” to help make safety plans for people.

The Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services has asked MPD not to displace encampments within the security perimeter, according to Henderson’s Tweets. She said operations of the two shelters located within the perimeter, Patricia Handy Place for Women and the Community for Creative Non-Violence, will not be affected. DHS will also be staffing an operations center from  Jan. 17 – Jan. 24 to help that service providers can call that for support with any inauguration-related issues.

Canceling reservations

The short-term rental company VRBO declined on Friday, two days after Airbnb’s announcement, to cancel reservations for the week but suggested renters report harassment or discrimination. 

Shannon Clark, co-organizer of the mutual aid group Remora House, said she was aware of at least six people whose reservations were canceled and were being moved to hotels. 

Clark said she supported Shutdown D.C.’s goal of protecting residents from potentially dangerous visitors but that canceling Airbnbs makes it hard for unhoused residents to find temporary housing.

“A lot of these actions, [protecting the unhoused] seems like it’s an afterthought,” Clark said. “And then those of us doing unhoused advocacy and outreach are kind of left holding the bag, trying to figure out how to keep people safe.”

Staying in a hotel for a short time is one alternative to Airbnbs but they typically have more logistical barriers, like requiring IDs that match a credit card, Clark said. She said Airbnbs provide more autonomy for unhoused people because they can access the space without having to go through multiple steps.

[Read more: Tiny Card, Big Consequences: Acquiring Identification a Struggle for Those with Unstable Housing]

Shutdown D.C., alongside Black Lives Matter DC, is still advocating for hotels to cancel their reservations as well to prevent visitors to the District. Clark said it’s hard to balance that need to keep D.C. safe but that if the campaign succeeds, the cancellations will leave few options for those temporarily staying in hotels.

“Hotels shouldn’t be prioritizing profits over people,” she said. “But at the same time, we really do need to get unhoused people off the streets if we can.”

Rev. Glenna Huber of the Church of the Epiphany said she knew of three people who were moved into Airbnbs before the cancellation was announced. She said that her church and other places of worship around the District wanted to provide financial support to those affected and were worried about people on the streets during Inauguration.

Crystal Green, a parishioner of Epiphany who often serves people experiencing homelessness at the church, said options for unhoused people who lose temporary housing are limited. And the closure of downtown D.C. makes it hard to connect with the people affected by the cancellations.

“Sometimes we don’t really know exactly what they need until we ask them,” Green said. “However, due to this current administration and the disaster that has happened, we’re not able to do that, and quite frankly, that makes me very angry. That makes me angry. And it makes me sad.”

[Disclosure: Street Sense Media rents office space from the Church of the Epiphany]

Maurice Cook, the executive director of Serve Your City D.C., said the campaign to cancel Airbnbs in the city did not consider the unhoused. 

Though he said he had not directly heard from any unhoused person whose reservation was canceled, he expressed his concern that unhoused people were not consulted during the course of the campaign and that there was not a plan in place to ensure they had access to resources like mutual aid groups. 

“I just don’t think people thought this through,” he said.

He added that young people who earn low wages are often the ones who utilize short-term rentals like Airbnb. 

Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George suggested in a Tweet that the D.C. Council should provide emergency housing to unhoused individuals in hotels. George said in a statement that canceling reservations during the inauguration was the “right decision,” while adding that the streets of the District are still unsafe.  

“We must now work to ensure that this decision doesn’t leave D.C. residents without permanent housing out on the streets during a really dangerous time,” she said.