The encampment along the L Street NE underpass is part of a new D.C. pilot to permanently close down three encampments — by first getting people connected to housing and other services.
In his 10 years living in a tent along the L Street NE underpass in NoMa, Mike has been forced to move his stuff plenty of times, usually when D.C. crews would come through to clean up the sidewalks.
But the 51-year-old is far less concerned with a permanent clearing of the longstanding encampment that D.C. has scheduled for the end of September. Normally he'd have to find somewhere else to post up and return to the site a few days later. This time is different.
"There's something better coming," says Mike, who asked that we not use his last name to protect his privacy. "It's an apartment, a place to live."
Mike and his unhoused neighbors are part of a new pilot program D.C. launched late last month to permanently close down homeless encampments at three sites: the M and L street underpasses in NoMa; New Jersey Avenue and O Street NW; and E and 20th streets NW. But instead of clearing out residents, many of whom might simply shift to other encampments, city officials say they will intensively engage with them to offer housing and other services.
"What we're doing in this case is saying because we're in the fourth wave of the pandemic, because we've seen in these three sites a proliferation of health and safety hazards, we are going to target the folks in these camps, about 103 individuals," says Wayne Turnage, D.C.'s deputy mayor for health and human services. "And we're going to connect them to housing if they would agree to go to housing. And then again, in some cases, we'll be shutting down the sites behind them."
Mike is in the final stages of receiving a housing voucher. On Wednesday, he filled out an application for an efficiency at a nearby apartment.
The pilot represents one of the first local efforts to permanently close homeless encampments since the beginning of the pandemic. While the city has regularly sent out crews to clean encampments — often requiring residents to temporarily move tents and other possessions — the last local closure of an encampment came in early January 2020, when unhoused residents living under the K Street underpass in NoMa were permanently moved from the narrow sidewalks to establish what city officials said were needed "pedestrian passageways."
The number of encampments across D.C. has grown since then; city officials currently count 119 encampments with 327 tents. (Earlier this year, D.C. reported that the number of people experiencing chronic homelessness jumped 20% since last year.) Some D.C. lawmakers have worried that without a concerted effort from the city to move residents experiencing homelessness into housing, some of the encampments could grow and become permanent fixtures — as they are in cities like Seattle and San Francisco.
At the same time, the National Park Service has evicted encampments in some federal parks, including the clearing of Burke Park in Mt. Vernon Square in August. In the case of a small encampment at SunTrust Plaza in Adams Morgan, unhoused residents are being forced to move by the private landowner looking to sell the site for development.
The NoMa encampments are scheduled to close by Sept. 27. The other two will extend later into the fall.
Some are approaching the city's pilot cautiously, seeing the idea of housing people experiencing homelessness as a win while questioning how the sites were chosen and whether enough work will be done to convince people to leave encampments they may have lived in for years.
"I think some of these people [might stay] because they might not think it's true," Mike says of the offer of housing and services.
"For someone who's been experiencing homelessness for a long time, they may not be inclined to take the first offer of housing that they're given or whatever housing tool they're given," says Councilmember Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), who chairs the committee that oversees the city's homeless services. "They might not trust the government."
While outreach has started at the NoMa encampments, it hasn't yet at in Foggy Bottom, where unhoused residents and their advocates said Wednesday that no one had yet come from the city to explain the project.
"We don't have enough information. We simply don't know what to tell people," says Yannik Omictin, an ANC commissioner who represents the encampment. "And if we tell people, essentially, you'll have to accept housing and we can't define housing, we can't tell them what that means. So we tell them housing or eviction. That's a scary proposition for people. And that's not something that we want to sort of broach when we just don't have the information so we can't even tell people." (D.C. says more extensive outreach at the site is set to begin next week.)
Turnage says he doesn't think many unhoused residents will turn down an option for an apartment. "It's not intuitively obvious to me why persons who are not struggling with other issues would reject the offer to get off of the street and go into a safer environment," he says. "But I'm sure some of them will happen. We don't expect a lot of it will happen. So we're not overly concerned about it."
Nadeau and some homeless advocates also worry that residents in encampments are, in a sense, jumping what is a very long line of people seeking housing, some of whom may currently be living in shelters or in other encampments that are not part of the pilot.
"I don't think prioritizing people for housing based off of them living at politically inconvenient locations is good public policy," says Jesse Rabinowitz, a senior manager for policy and advocacy at Miriam's Kitchen. The Foggy Bottom site has drawn the attention of Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell, which was written up in the Washington Post. "This week we had a thousand individuals sleeping in shelter. We have individuals who are living in less trafficked encampments. We have individuals who are living outside, but not in tents. All of those individuals deserve housing and deserve the same urgency and whole-of-government approach."
That urgency is increasing from city agencies, says Nadeau, in part due to increased funding for housing from the council — including new revenue from a tax increase on wealthy residents that could help house up to 2,400 people.
But for Aaron Howe, a PhD student who has spent extensive time at the NoMa encampments and co-founded the mutual aid group Remora House, another concern is that D.C. aims to close the encampments altogether, making it impossible for anyone to return.
"The big thing that my group is pushing is to let the pilot program exist by itself without the clearing, so we can actually evaluate its effectiveness," he says. "Because if it is effective, then the number of tents in that area should be reduced anyway."
Rabinowitz shares that criticism, saying the city's approach of closing the encampments "criminalizes homelessness," and does so just as evictions are restarting in D.C. as the moratorium imposed at the start of the pandemic winds down.
Turnage says D.C. will evaluate how the pilot program plays out at the three encampments, and if it's deemed to be successful, could even expand it to other sites. And in response to some of the critiques, he says the city simply needs to do something.
"It would be foolhardy for us to see this proliferation of tents across the city and then close our eyes as if nothing were happening," says Turnage. "Because if you do that and you wake up one day and you have an even larger proliferation, you could be overwhelmed by the problem."
Down at E and 20th streets, Gary, who asked that we not use his last name, says he's curious to hear more from D.C. about the offer of housing in exchange from moving out of the encampment.
"People should live like human beings. This is subhuman conditions living out here," says the 63-year-old, who has been homeless off and on for more than two decades but is relatively new to the Foggy Bottom encampment. "I don't know if it's good to evict people out of the camp, but it's good to give people housing. I would go in. No doubt."
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.