Photo of a homeless encampment on a sidewalk.
Wooden planters were set up to prevent unhoused residents of an encampment, like this one, from moving back in. Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

On Tuesday, Aug. 3, wooden planters appeared in front of the Safeway at Corcoran and 17th Streets NW after a scheduled encampment cleanup took place, reported Washington City Paper. Such temporary evictions of people living in tents or otherwise encamped in public space with their belongings organized by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services (DMHHS) can “clean-up” the area. Under its encampment engagement policy,  DMHHS is not allowed to place any barriers that prevent unhoused residents from returning to the space. Any other entity would have required a permit to do so. The action constituted illegal dumping of bulk items. 

According to Washington City Paper, many advocates and Ward 2 residents saw the planters as an “oppressive play to keep unhoused people from moving back,” and they were reported to the  311 city-services hotline by ANC2B07 Commissioner Michael Scott McKernan. 

The planters were removed two days later, Thursday, but returned Friday — this time adhered to the sidewalk. That day, the planters were removed again by people who said they were sent by the city and have not been put back.

A GoFundMe was also started on Friday to “Help keep our Safeway safe,” citing littering, noise, alcohol, and drug use in the encampments as threats to public safety. The GoFundMe is no longer accepting donations. 

Amidst discussion and pushback about the planters, ANC2B03 Commissioner Robin Nunn called DMHHS to confirm their engagement policy had not changed to make the dumping legal. When DMHHS staff said the office was not involved, she went to the Safeway and talked to the store manager, who told Nunn she was unaware she had to obtain a permit to place the planters. 

Nunn told Washington City Paper the store manager said she was “trying to keep the homeless people away” and that she “felt it was a public health problem to have unhoused people sleeping in front of the store, and thought the planters would help keep the area safe.” 

In August 2020, a couple living in a tent on the same corner had their belongings stolen in the middle of the night while they were staying at an AirBnB that had been given to them for the weekend. Security camera footage recorded two people drive up in a minivan at approximately 5:30 a.m., stop to load the tent and other items into the van, and drive off. MPD offers a reward of up to $1,000 to anyone who provides information that leads to the arrest and indictment of the person or persons responsible.

Nunn and other advocates for unhoused residents rights, such as Jesse Rabinowitz of Miriam’s Kitchen, brought up the racism present in the placing of these planters, as well as other encampment cleanups

“We just have to be honest — this is racism, this is gentrification, and displacement … I thought we were on the same page that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect,” Rabinowitz told Washington City Paper.