What is so complicated about homeless encampments in the District?
This article is part of our 2019 contribution to the DC Homeless Crisis Reporting Project in collaboration with other local newsrooms. You can see all of our collective work published throughout the day at DCHomelessCrisis.press and join the public Facebook group to discuss how to act on this information and add context to areas we may have overlooked.
The underpasses at K, L, and M Streets in the NoMa area of Northeast D.C. give off an unpleasant odor. Put bluntly, they reek of urine. And the rotting piles of garbage strewn up and down their sidewalks do little to mask the smell.
Tents, where people live, line each side of the underpasses here. Some are pitched atop discarded wooden crates so that they can be off the pavement and kept dry in case of rain.
“It’s not so much of an issue that it’s an eyesore. But there’s a lot of trash,” said Evan, a resident who has a home nearby. “I feel like if they kept it more clean, it would be no issue at all.”
Evan thinks the reason encampments persist in this area is more complicated than people not having places to call home.
“I think there’s a lot more that needs to happen. Maybe counseling, and finding jobs for these people,” he said.
A second housed resident who lives nearby described the NoMa encampments as “filthy” and said he was dissatisfied with how he felt the city government policed the areas. “The city didn’t clear, period, the last time they were here,” said the man, who gave his name as Floyd.
He added that he thought the District should issue citations to encampment residents or put them all up in hotels for 30 days if they agreed to vacate for good.
Most encampment residents interviewed for this article agreed about the sordid conditions of their sites. Many of them said the lack of access to public restrooms and the limited number of trash cans made it hard to keep their areas clean. One unsheltered resident said the pungent smell of urine everywhere was one of the worst things about living at this site.
Claudette Horton, a NoMa resident who grew up in the District, sometimes gives money to people she sees sleeping under the underpasses in her neighborhood.
“It hurts me to the heart to see people sleeping in the street because it could be you, it could be me, it could be anyone,” she said.
Horton concedes the money is probably not enough. “They need prayers. They need help,” she added.
But well-intentioned prayers have crashed, again and again, into the cold, dismal reality of life on the streets.
How some people lose their homes
Until seven months ago, Chris H. had a home.
This was before he fell victim to a hit and run. The accident had left him on crutches, making it hard to get around. For whatever reason, his workers’ compensation did not cover the medical costs, even though it happened while he was on the job.
Chris is a civil engineer. Or at least he was. He used to spend half his time in the field, working on bridges. He spent the other half of his time working in the office, writing reports. But Chris said his injury made it impossibly difficult to continue this work. He ended up losing his job.
When that happened, Chris said he tried to find another job but did not have much luck because he “wasn’t really mobile.”
From there, everything spiraled out of control. “I lost my health insurance. And then my depression kicked in,” he said. “And then [problems with] my mental health kicked in. And then I ended up living in a tent.”
Chris is no longer on crutches and is hopeful he will soon get off the streets. Without divulging any details, he said he found a place with a bed. Since Chris is still seeking employment, he asked that his full name not be disclosed for this article.
Chris’s story resembles many others shared by unsheltered residents who live in D.C.
“People look down on people who live in tents, but I’d like to see one of them go through an accident. [And] lose their job because they can’t work. And if they’re living paycheck to paycheck, and they don’t get a break on their housing,” Chris said, adding that many people could just as easily end up like him.
Encampments are not unique to DC
Cities across the United States struggle with getting people out of encampments and into homes.
Strategies for responding to encampment sites vary from place to place. Often, a number of agencies are involved. Police, social workers, non-profits, and neighborhood residents all have a role.
Together, they work to solve what can seem like an impossibly complex and delicate problem. Part of the challenge is addressing the unpredictable human element.
Elizabeth Bowen, a faculty expert on homelessness at the University of Buffalo School of Social Work, said that cities must be sensitive to the emotional needs of their unsheltered residents.
“Homeless people have often experienced a great deal of trauma in their lives,” Bowen said. “Often, they have had a lot of negative experiences and even traumatic experiences with police and other authority figures.”
Cities must be thoughtful in their approaches to encampments, Bowen said. This requires that they be “transparent” about their policies and take the time to build trust with the people living outdoors. Otherwise, Bowen argued, cities simply will not have much success.
If the unsheltered people who live in encampments lack trust in the government, they can feel like they are being criminalized or targeted. Many unsheltered residents interviewed for this article admitted to feeling this way.
Chris H. called D.C.’s encampment procedures a “joke.” In his view, the city’s goal is simply “to make people move and have them throw away some of their stuff.”
The local strategy
In 2015, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser made a bold pledge to end chronic homelessness in the District. And according to HUD data, the overall number of people experiencing homelessness in the District has decreased year after year since the implementation of Bowser’s “Homeward D.C.” five-year strategic plan to end homelessness. However, some advocates say it is not all good news, particularly for those who live on the city’s streets.
The District’s strategy for tackling encampments is outlined in its “encampment protocol.” The detailed document seems to offer unsheltered residents nothing but opportunities: the ability to link up with behavioral health specialists, the chance to meet with social workers, the opportunity to move into safe, temporary shelter, and even the chance to obtain support for permanent supportive housing.
It remains unclear, however, as to how effective these opportunities have been in helping unsheltered residents into homes. Every year, on a single night in January, The D.C. Department of Human Services conducts a count of people experiencing homelessness. A review of the data for the past nine years reveals little in the way of progress on reducing the city’s overall unsheltered population. In 2015, 544 people were counted as living unsheltered. In 2019, the number was 607. The year before, it was 599. While the overall number of people experiencing homelessness has decreased in recent years, the number of people living on the streets has remained steady.
Part of the problem, critics argue, has to do with the way the city disposes of items at encampment sites. Disposition of trash is a major function of the protocol. But sometimes, trash is not all that is removed.
Ann Marie Staudenmaier, a lawyer for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said she the city has improperly handled the belongings of unsheltered residents.
“My concerns are that the city is throwing away items that are protected by this protocol that governs these clearings,” she said. According to Staudenmaier, the city has disposed of “tents and people’s IDs, photographs — and belongings and none of that stuff is supposed to be thrown away.”
This complaint is the subject of a current lawsuit between the city and some unsheltered residents, supported by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.
Unsheltered residents interviewed at four separate encampment cleanups visited for this article have claimed to have had important documents thrown out or to have known someone who had.
The City’s intent is “to make sure that both the residents who are around these encampments and, specifically, the residents who are living in these encampments, are both safe and out of harm’s way,” according to Rayna Smith, the chief of staff for the Deputy Mayor for Health Human Services. DMHSS is tasked with coordinating all agencies involved in the city’s encampment engagements on behalf of the mayor.
According to Smith, the city workers take active measures to ensure they do not dispose of valuable personal items such as “documents, IDs, wallets.” But she acknowledged items like these have at times unintentionally been trashed. She said that sometimes the reason for this was because they were “hidden” inside of objects that would be otherwise deemed as “trash.”
In a previous article, Street Sense Media reported that a man claimed he had hidden several hundred dollars in a speaker that was compacted in a garbage truck during a July cleanup near Farragut Square.
“We want people to know that we don’t do this to only disrupt people who are living in conditions that are not ideal,” Smith explained. Even though DMHHS wants “to be very considerate to [unsheltered residents]” she said, they also need to “be considerate to the city as a whole.”
Christy Respress, the executive director for Pathways to Housing, an organization contracted by the District government to help people on the street find homes, also believes that the city’s encampment cleanups can be traumatic for those involved. According to her, the issue is very complicated since there are “very practical safety concerns for everybody — the person on the street and otherwise.”
Respress’s organization deploys teams of outreach workers that regularly visit the city’s encampment sites. Over fifteen years, Respress said, Pathways to Housing has been able to end homelessness for over 900 people.
Despite their successes, however, Respress said there are still some challenges. According to her, some of the District’s homeless residents are skeptical of their outreach teams since “they have been let down so many times before.”
Unlike other housing programs, Pathways to Housing takes unsheltered residents as they are. There are no underlying pre-conditions or requirements for individuals to be approved for a home. Their programs still offer services such as counseling and substance abuse treatment to those who need them — but emphasizes “housing first” over all else. The idea is that having a home allows a person to focus on other issues in their lives.
“It’s like it’s hard [for potential clients] to believe,” Respress explained. “They think, ‘no way, that can’t be true.’” The biggest referral source for Pathways to Housing remains word of mouth.
Joyce, an unsheltered resident, has tried before to get connected with services that were meant to get her into housing. She remembers the day she walked into an office building to fill out a 10-page application form.
She thought most of the questions listed on the form seemed to have nothing to do with the services she was seeking. It did not seem like it was relevant, for instance, for someone to know where she went to school or what the first and last names of both her parents were. But the forms, Joyce said, had to be filled out before anyone would agree to meet with her. And Joyce needed a home. So, Joyce filled them out the best she could.
There was a question on the application that Joyce said she remembered. It asked if the applicant had any habits or addictions. Joyce said she tried to answer it truthfully.
“I said, well, I smoke weed and I drink beer occasionally. So, I mean, I had written that on the paper,” she explained.
But then, Joyce alleged, the staff member who reviewed her application told her to change her answer. She said she was instructed to say she never did drugs and she never drank alcohol. Uncomfortable with lying, Joyce left and has not turned back since.
“If I got to lie to get help, I’m better off without it,” she said.
Recently, someone told Joyce they were ready to move her into a home if she wanted it. She lumps Pathways to Housing and Community Connections into the same category of “government places” and said the person was from one of the two.
Joyce said she was reluctant to receive the help offered to her. She is convinced that if she accepted, something would go wrong. In her experience, something always does.
“I don’t have a job, I don’t have an income,” Joyce explained. “And I seen people who did get a place. They go from having one habit to then having more habits.”
She has been living on the streets in D.C. for close to seven years
No place to call home
Marchell Thomas’s true passion is writing. She likes to write short stories and poetry. But because she is homeless, Thomas said, she spends most of her time thinking about how to survive. She would like to have a job, but according to her, this is not as easy as it sounds.
“A lot of us don’t have clothes to look for your normal job, or we don’t have a phone for the employer to call us,” Thomas explained.
In an ideal world, Thomas imagines someone coming by her encampment site every day to offer work for day wages. It would not matter what the work was, so long as it paid them in cash. For many unsheltered residents, Thomas said, two weeks was far too long of a wait to be paid.
Alena Jackson, an unsheltered resident who lives alongside Thomas, said she would also like to work. She said the problem people have when applying for jobs is what to do about not having an address. Most application forms, Jackson said, require people to list one.
“We can give them a business address, but we don’t like to do that, because they don’t contact you when you do that,” she said.
When asked whether they thought unemployment was the reason they were homeless, both Jackson and Thomas responded with a resounding “no.” The reason why they were homeless they answered, was because they did not have places they could call home.
Not enough housing to go around
James Fuller, an unsheltered resident who lives in NoMA, said he has been on a waitlist for housing assistance for 15 years.
“And they keep saying just wait, wait, wait. I’m tired of waiting now.” If only he had a home, Fuller added, “everything would fall right into place.”
Fuller has a service dog, a labrador retriever mix named “Big Boy.” He cannot imagine ever parting with Big Boy. But having the dog means it is hard for Fuller to move into a shelter or to ask to stay with his friends.
Many people have spent years on housing waiting lists. According to Respress, the wait for a home can be anywhere between one week and five years. At Pathways to Housing, Respress said, they try and find alternative ways to get people housed. She cited a program called Project Re-connect which aims to link people back with their families. They also refer some clients to recovery-based housing when they request it.
“We’re not just passively waiting for [The Department of Human Services] or a permanent supportive housing or a rapid rehousing subsidy, Respress explained. “But the reality is that the wait can be a long time just because of the scarcity of the resource.”
Aaron Howe, an anthropologist completing their Ph.D. at American University, has observed over 30 encampment cleanups this year. They said that while they believe the city’s encampment protocol looks good on paper, the reality is grim.
Howe said the District does not follow its protocol “Not everyone is here that is supposed to be here,” Howe pointed out during a recent encampment engagement in the NoMa neighborhood, alleging that the city does not follow its protocol.
“These cleanups don’t connect people to services. I’ve been out here so many times. I think maybe one time I saw DHS doing intakes.”
Interviews with unsheltered residents during various encampment engagements held throughout the District in July revealed mixed responses. Some people said they were frequently offered support from city government representatives. Other people said they were never offered any help at all.
In either case, Howe said they believed the District is hard-pressed to find a solution to the city’s encampment problem. “I don’t think anyone can do a very good job without modifying housing or at least getting back control of our obviously, over-cost housing stock.”
On a recent afternoon, Joyce said hello to a young couple walking their dog along the street in NoMa. They exchanged pleasantries while Joyce fed their dog an organic, non-GMO treat she pulled out from a plastic bag. Joyce gets the treats from a variety of neighbors who she said lived in nearby high-rise condos. This is something Joyce has done for years because she feels sorry for the animals.
“Dogs,” Joyce said, “shouldn’t be in apartments. They should be allowed to run free outside.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly used the pronouns he/him to refer to one of the sources.
This article has been updated to correct the spelling of a source’s name.