Recovering from the trauma of an encampment cleanup
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s 2020 began, before the COVID-19 crisis, a lifelong D.C. resident who calls himself the “homeless homeboy” sat atop a milk crate on a sidewalk near Franklin Square and asked passersby to consider making a donation in exchange for some of his poetry.
Homeboy, as he prefers to be called, writes poetry centered on the weather and the changing of the seasons. One of these poems made its way to a poetry meetup at Miriam’s. Sometimes, he said, he performs his work in support of his personal fundraiser, for which he uses a microphone and external speaker.
He no longer has the speaker. It was destroyed in an encampment cleanup led by the Office of the Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services (DMHHS) seven months ago, an event he could not help talking about over and over.
For this article, Homeboy requested that he be identified solely by his pen name. He said he has family with housing in the region and he does not want them to know that he is living on the streets.
By all accounts, Homeboy has had a rough life. When he was 15 years old he was shot in the back. The bullet passed through his neck, leaving him physically and emotionally scarred.
It was around then, Homeboy said, that he ran away from home for the first time, starting on a “dead-end path” that led him to experience homelessness “off-and-on” for over 20 years — the last 10 of which he has spent downtown. Homeboy is 42 years old.
He also suffers from a herniated disc in his back, he stated he recently began receiving benefits to help him with this problem.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, someone is “chronically homeless” if they sleep in an area not meant for “human habitation” and have had at least “four episodes of homelessness in the last three years.”
For six months in 2018, Homeboy had a place to call home. It was on North Capitol Street. From time to time, he invited friends who lived on the streets to come stay with him. But he said he felt like this drew unwanted attention from his housing program managers.
Though no one asked him to stop inviting his friends who were without shelter to stay in his home, or even said anything to him about it, Homeboy decided to move out.
“When I’m not wanted somewhere,” he said, “I don’t want to be there.”
He said he felt like a “talk” was coming, and thought it was better to move out and avoid the inevitable confrontation. Besides, he added, he had plans to move into another place.
But those plans never panned out. He moved back to the streets.
Some items that Homeboy owned, including the speaker, were compacted inside a city garbage truck in July, 2019. He was living outside on a street corner downtown and had been storing his belongings on public property, violating the city’s encampment policy. As Street Sense Media previously reported, representatives from the deputy mayor’s office had ordered city workers to place Homeboy’s belongings into the mouth of the truck just before he appeared, 13 minutes late, to the scheduled “encampment protocol engagement.”
After destroying some of his belongings, they offered to help connect him with housing services. Angered by what he perceived as the deliberate destruction of his property, Homeboy turned down their offer.
Salvaging what he could from the wreckage, he vowed never to return to the same street corner. However, by December he was back in the same spot he was evicted from, sleeping in a tent on the sidewalk.
His July interaction with DMHHS left him bitter and disheartened. In a recent interview, he claimed the DMHHS representatives had intentionally deceived him, telling him they would help him cut the lock to a chair he had fastened to a bicycle rack. But then, he said, they trashed his belongings just as they sent him searching for a key.
“I said some bad things,” Homeboy said, referring to a flurry of racially charged insults he spouted at the DMHHS representative upon discovering that she had ordered his property placed into a dump truck.
He said he could not get over how they smashed his speaker. “I do spoken word,” he said, and the speaker was meant to be used in concert with his microphone.
DMHHS did not respond to multiple email and phone requests for comment on this situation. The incident is also subject of a broader lawsuit between the District and people experiencing homelessness in the city.
With temperatures dropping below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, Homeboy says he would have liked to have more support for comfort items like blankets and hand warmers — items he claims DMHHS is responsible for providing during hypothermia alerts.
“This year you can hardly see them,” said Chuck, an unsheltered resident who also lives downtown. He added that many local unsheltered residents do not know about the shelter hotline (202-399-7093), and do not have phones.
While D.C. provides residents with the legal right to shelter during these times, Homeboy said he avoids staying in them out of fear for his own safety. Without giving away many specifics, Homeboy claimed he has been threatened while staying in shelters. He said he was once stabbed and escaped injury only because of the layers of clothes he had on.
After connecting with the chronic homeless outreach team at Pathways to Housing, an organization contracted by the city to help connect people to housing services, Homeboy said he was hopeful he’d soon find a home.
Once off the streets, he wants to focus on his art. Homeboy considers himself a “color nerd,” and has enjoyed visual arts and poetry. He also said he would be eager to get a job in a restaurant or somewhere where he can work with his hands and create.
At the time, he said, it had been cold, but he was hopeful things would work out for the best.
“As you get older, you have faith in God,” he explained.