What a park redevelopment reveals about a community: Beyond the city’s plans to renovate the park at NJ Ave and O St NW
This article was co-published with The DC Line.
At a quarter past 3 on a recent weekday afternoon, Alexander, an unsheltered resident who lives in a tent, was trying not to cry.
Alexander, who agreed to an interview under the condition he not be photographed or fully named, has been living without a home for just over 16 years.
The park where Alexander resides is located at the corner of New Jersey Avenue and O Street NW, next to a fire station and not far from Dunbar High School. And it’s the topic of much heated debate.
This fall, the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) will begin renovating the park where Alexander lives. DPR’s plans, which were announced last September and include installation of a playground with a splash pad and climbable sculptures, have sparked community discussion that has little to do with the park’s designs and everything to do about the people who reside in an encampment located at the park.
Surrounded by towering deciduous trees, the park features concrete paths, benches, gaming tables, and a patch of grass. It’s also home to approximately 30 of the city’s unsheltered residents, many of whom moved into the park during the pandemic to carve out a space of their own under the shady canopy.
But the area, which was never designed for sustained living, quickly became overrun with problems within the last year. Garbage overflowed from trash cans. Neighbors complained about drug use. Reports of overdoses, crime, and unsanitary conditions floated about town. Two people who lived in the encampment died, one in March and another in May. There was a fire on May 29 that the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department said lasted less than 10 minutes.
While the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services (DMHHS) led one “encampment protocol engagement” at the park in 2019, the city doubled down in 2020, conducting six cleanups in the area: four where only designated trash was removed, and two where all people were forced to leave and any unclaimed belongings destroyed. So far in 2021, there have been three trash-only cleanups at the park, according to Street Sense Media’s monitoring of the deputy mayor’s website.
D.C. Fire and EMS responded to the New Jersey and O Street NW intersection 41 times from Jan. 1 to June 15 of this year. (The number excludes traffic accidents but is not specific to the encampment at the location.)
Still, many housed residents in the area became frustrated with what they saw as a lack of government engagement with the people living at the park. Why weren’t these people in a shelter? Why couldn’t the government find them housing? Why can’t someone just go in and clear them all out?
While Alexander was also frustrated about his lack of housing, the poor conditions at the park, and the drugs he has seen being used from time to time — they weren’t the reason for his tears.
In the late spring of 2005, someone threw a firebomb into Alexander’s home in Southeast D.C. The deadly fire that ensued stole all those who were special to him: his mother, his wife, his 5-month-old daughter. Around the same time, District police arrested a serial arsonist for a string of fires he set throughout the Washington area by lighting plastic jugs filled with gasoline. However, years later, living in the park at New Jersey and O, Alexander still is not sure who attacked his family’s home or why.
“Man, I’m trying not to cry. Sometimes, I try not to cry,” he said. “What I mean by that is [sometimes] I’ll go into my tent right there, and just lay down, and just cry. Sometimes, just hoping for another day when I don’t have to see none of this.”
Sometimes expletives don’t fully express the fury of being forcibly removed from one’s home
Tiara Maria Bowen, an unsheltered resident who was evicted from her home on Saratoga Avenue NE seven years ago and now lives in a tent under the shade of a large tree, thinks discussing the details of the city’s plans to renovate the park is beside the point.
In her view, the discussion her housed neighbors should be having is about something more fundamental:
“Why are we living in tents?” Bowen asked, sweeping her hand around to point at the line of tents staked around the perimeter of the park.
Ever since her eviction, Bowen said, she has been living on the streets. And it has taken its toll on her health and well-being.
“Look at my feet. … I’m tired of being on my f****** feet,” Bowen said, removing her shoes and showing the many blisters and sores covering her soles.
Bowen’s old neighborhood between Brentwood and Langdon has undergone intense redevelopment in recent years, including the large RIA project that is expected to break ground soon. She blames the city for a long history of housing policies that have harmed Black families — and the statistics back her up.
A report released by the new Council Office of Racial Equity explains how “centuries of government-sanctioned racist policies” have led to the present-day housing inequities that disproportionately affect Black and Latinx households. At present, according to the report, Black and Latinx households in the District have the highest rates of rent burden, with over half spending in excess of 30% of their income on rent. They also have much lower homeownership rates when compared with white residents: 49% of white households in the District own their homes, compared with 35% of Black households and 30% of Latinx households, the report says.
Yet the effects of housing inequity may be most visible in the city’s unhoused population. The federally mandated Point in Time Count released this year by the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness showed that 86.5% of the people experiencing homelessness in the District are Black or African American, despite Black people making up just 46% of the total population.
Regardless of statistical evidence, the disparities are obvious to Bowen, who gestured at those living in tents around her. Furious and hurt, she says she’s done having a filter.
“I ain’t racist, but why the f*** is it that we ain’t got s*** yet and we’re the ones [who’ve] got to move?” she asked.
Bowen pointed to another harsh reality: Living outdoors poses particular dangers to young women like her, who face the constant threat of violence.
“They’re attacking our females. They’re raping us, and they’re doing s*** to us,” Bowen said.
According to a 2017 report published by the District’s Interagency Council on Homelessness, over three-quarters of homeless women have experienced violence, including domestic and intimate partner violence.
Sometimes, conversations and meetings fall short of expectations
Last September, representatives from four D.C. agencies — the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, the Department of Human Services, the Department of Parks and Recreation, and the Department of General Services — held the first in a series of virtual community meetings to address concerns about the city’s plans to renovate the park at New Jersey Avenue and O Street NW.
The elaborate $1.3 million project, scheduled to start later this year, includes installation of a splash park, new landscaping, and a new pavilion — with a future dog park to be developed by others penciled in next to the area.
At the meeting, city officials addressed questions from the public about the planned project and the unsheltered residents living there. Some community members posed questions — later compiled into a Q&A on the DGS website — that betrayed their overriding concerns, which had nothing to do with the climbable sculptures, the fountains, or the new walking paths.
“What action is being taken to make sure that no ADDITIONAL residents move into the park?”
“Why ‘can’t’ DC arrest people for violating the no camping law? And why ‘can’t’ items illegally kept on public park land be impounded and confiscated as a deterrent to this illegal behavior? Is this DC Law? If so, it can change — why ‘can’t’ we change this?”
“Is there a way that a portion of the funding can be spent to put up a fence in the short term in order to eliminate camping within the park?”
“What is the procedure for when encampment residents refuse housing/services AND refuse to leave?”
When asked, none of the people living at the park interviewed for this article stated that they would refuse permanent housing. Instead, all of those interviewed said they lived there because they had nowhere else to go. Alexander said he has been on a housing waiting list for years.
Some community members raised similar concerns at a June 2 virtual meeting hosted by Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen and attended by city officials, residents, and community activists alike. In his public address to attendees, Allen said he organized the meeting to address resident concerns about the encampment.
Speaking at the meeting, local advisory neighborhood commissioner Rachelle Nigro called on all those present to develop a plan that addressed the concerns of both housed and unhoused neighbors.
“This park is dangerous for not only the residents inside the park, but for the surrounding community. And on behalf of the community, especially the residents in the [neighboring] cooperative, something needs to be done to help the people in the park,” said Nigro, who represents the area where the park is located and chairs ANC 6E.
Alex Lopez, another member of ANC 6E, said the encampment is the “No. 1 issue” he hears about from constituents.
For Lopez, his bottom-line concern about the encampment has to do with how the city plans to eventually relocate the people living there. Construction for the park, Lopez pointed out, is set to start by early fall.
“We can’t afford to have an eviction scenario similar to the K Street underpass in NoMa. That’s absolutely what I want to avoid. There needs to be a plan. People need to have opportunities to move into housing,” Lopez said.
Responding to the community’s general questions about D.C. protocol for “clearing” an encampment, Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Wayne Turnage said flatly that although he has the authority to order encampment “cleanups,” he does not have the authority to “criminalize homelessness.”
“We cannot permanently evict people from an encampment that is not deemed to be an ongoing public safety or public health hazard,” Turnage said.
Laura Zeilinger, director of the city’s Department of Human Services, added that DHS representatives visit this encampment “multiple times a week” to connect unsheltered residents with opportunities to find them housing and shelter. But, as she pointed out, “It’s a complex process. … Certainly, if there was a very simple solution, we would not be sitting here having this conversation over and over again.”
Some feel the project ought to be something else
Elliot Hardesty, who started sleeping on the benches on New Jersey Avenue because he ran into issues drawing his government pension, first came to D.C. in 1976 to study engineering at Howard University.
After finishing his studies at Howard, Hardesty worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority’s nuclear construction program before coming back to D.C. in 1987 for a job in the city’s Department of Public Works. For 10 years, Hardesty worked as an engineer on projects such as the I-395 bridge.
During that time, he watched as the District’s landscape evolved.
“I could see the city changing. Now, at that point, D.C. used to be all Black … then all of a sudden, the whole doggone area started to have tac-cranes going up for construction and housing and stuff,” Hardesty said.
He questioned whether DPR’s goals for the park are misaligned with what the community needs.
For Hardesty, the question of what to do about the park is obvious, evident by the grouping of tents that surround its perimeter.
“They could knock all of this down and find these people a place to live somewhere, and build a shelter here for the homeless,” he said.
Hardesty used to sleep on the benches near Metro stations, and the Metro Transit Police would often help him find a place to sleep at local shelters.
“But the shelters are so lousy trying to house everybody, so I’m just living on the benches day by day,” Hardesty said.
Hardesty does not quite understand the logic behind spending over $1 million on a project he does not think is needed. In his view, what the city needs more than another splash pad or climbable sculpture is a new shelter.
“They have running water out there, sewer out there, electricity, so why can’t they bring in a construction company, tear everything down … and get to work?” Hardesty asked.
The answer to Hardesty’s question lies with the publicly stated goals for the park’s renovation project. According to a DPR presentation from April, the new design for the park is intended to encourage activities such as “water-play” for neighborhood children and “space to host concerts, summer cinema,” as well as to foster opportunities for “community gathering.” Most of the community quotes provided within the document highlight the desire from residents to maintain the large flexible green space and add lighting to make it feel safer at night.
The presentation also shows the results of a community survey conducted by DPR to inform its plans for redesigning the park. The survey asked participants to respond to a series of questions that combined the onset of COVID-19 and the encampment as the primary dividing line to consider their experiences at the park:
“How often did you visit NJ & O Park before COVID-19 and the encampment?”
“What amenities did you and/or your family members use at NJ & O Park before COVID-19 and the encampment?”
“What did you and/or your family members like most about NJ & O Park before COVID-19 and the encampment?”
Despite multiple requests for comment, DMHHS and DHS did not answer questions about the project. After this article was published, DPR responded to questions related to survey methodology and park funding. In a statement, DPR Director Delano Hunter said, “The park located at New Jersey & O Street was noted to be in need of improvements and funding was identified in the agency’s FY19 CIP Small Park Improvement budget. … The survey was distributed to residents online and was printed and given to the local ANC Commissioners to distribute among additional stakeholders.”
Alexander, who did not know much about the city’s plans to renovate the park before his interview with Street Sense Media and The DC Line, said he could imagine how it will look when complete.
“It can be a lovely park. It can be. It’s just … when they throw us out …,” he said, trailing off.
This article was co-published with The DC Line.
Will Schick covers DC government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and The DC Line. Year one of this joint position was made possible by the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship, The Nash Foundation, and individual contributors.