A front loader follows behind city workers and a Department of Public Works truck as they sweep the sidewalk and throw items left in the K Street underpass.
A front loader follows behind city workers and a Department of Public Works truck as they sweep the sidewalk and throw items left in the K Street underpass on Jan 16. Photo by Benjamin Burgess / KStreetPhotographyDC.com

At least 40 D.C. residents got a harsh lesson in the realities of power and politics last week as Mayor Muriel Bowser held firm to her decision to evict them from their outdoor encampment along K Street, between First and Second Streets NE. That lesson? That in D.C., money equals power. That money – more than extreme poverty, physical or mental illness, trauma or homelessness – gets the attention of the mayor.

City officials have publicly stated that there’s not enough space for pedestrians to pass safely along K Street’s narrow sidewalks and that the tents present a dangerous obstacle. And yet look at what happens in other D.C. neighborhoods when the dollar signs of gentrification and redevelopment are dangled. With the full permission of the D.C. government, pedestrians are routinely pushed into the street for months at a time to make room for earth-moving trucks and cranes. A perfect example is the 1300 block of G Street NW, where Street Sense Media’s offices are located. For months now, pedestrians and cars have been forced to share the street. This to make way for progress, which in D.C. is measured in square feet of prime office and residential space added.

City officials have also cited public health concerns when aggressively targeting for closure the

encampments in NoMa and elsewhere in the city. Citing the presence of trash, human waste and hypodermic needles, both city officials and the NoMa Business Improvement District (BID) have called for “clean up” and removal of the encampments in the name of public health.

What of the public health of our homeless neighbors? It’s long been established that chronic

homelessness reduces life expectancy by decades. In 2016, the Atlantic reported:

“Housing is so important to health that those without a home die decades younger than those with a home. While the average life expectancy in the U.S. is almost 80, chronically homeless individuals can expect to live only to their 60s. One study by Jim O’Connell, president of Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, showed that the average life expectancy for the homeless in select cities was between 42 and 52 years.”

And yet the mayor continues to put the demands of wealthy residents, business owners and landlords above the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable residents of our city. In her defense, nationally, delivery of community health care in impoverished communities, especially mental health care, is in the stone age. The mayor is not to blame for the state of our mental health care delivery system. But her decision to forcibly remove these encampment residents is nothing short of callous, given the relationship between mental illness and other disabling health conditions and homelessness.

Residents of the District who are homeless or living with housing instability can never compete on the same playing field where money determines political will and action. We are therefore issuing a call to action to all those who desire more compassion from their government.

Registered voters acting collectively are the only democratic and non-violent force that have ever successfully challenged the power that money amasses. In the coming months and years, Street Sense Media will seek to use our resources – our voice, our unique perspective and expertise and office space – to gather and help organize those in this city who believe government should prioritize the most vulnerable amongst us.

Join us and help build a better, fairer and more just community.

Brian Carome is the executive director of Street Sense Media.