This article also appears in our March 20 print issue under the headline “Unsheltered in the Storm.”
The day after Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a state of emergency in the District of Columbia over the global coronavirus pandemic, D.C. government workers swept the homeless encampments around 17th and Corcoran streets NW.
“You are not afraid of the coronavirus?” asked Stevie, 34, to no one in particular.
Stevie’s friends and acquaintances were not concerned about the virus, but about her. They showed up to help her temporarily move. Stevie lives in a tent with her partner—or as she calls Savon, “my other half”—in front of the Safeway at 1701 Corcoran Street NW. On Thursday, the D.C. Department of Human Services’ homeless outreach team was tasked with sweeping Stevie’s tent and another tent in front of McDonald’s on 17th Street NW for public safety and health reasons.
“Are you keeping calm?” Stevie’s friend Tim asked her.
Stevie, who declined to give her last name, replied, “Yes.”
“Good. Keep calm and carry on, that’s what you got to do,” Tim said assuringly.
More than 20 people—including DHS staff, sanitation workers, homeless outreach workers with Miriam’s Kitchen, a lawyer with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, police, and volunteers—gathered around 9 a.m. for a scheduled clearing of the Dupont encampments. By noon, Stevie and the other encamped residents had returned their tents and other personal belongings to their usual spots in front of the Safeway and McDonald’s. They moved back as soon as the sanitation workers finished removing any trash or debris that was left behind.
The morning was an emotional one. The people that helped Stevie and others move their stuff from one part of the sidewalk to another did not heed the public health recommendation to practice “social distancing”—that is, to limit social interactions and stay at least six feet away from anyone you do encounter in order to slow the spread of the virus. J Bernick, a friend of Stevie’s, embraced her before leaving because they knew how emotionally taxing the day was. An elbow bump, in this case, wasn’t enough.
The day became especially tense when Lawrence Sprowls, who lives in a nearby apartment building, confronted Stevie for not leaving permanently and began taking photos of Stevie and her belongings on his cell phone. Sprowls told City Paper he has called and emailed the mayor’s office multiple times since January to complain about the Dupont encampments, and has gone as far as offering Stevie money so she would leave the neighborhood for good. Stevie says Sprowls has even pointed a finger gun at her, which Sprowls independently confirmed. It made her nervous but didn’t scare her off.
“I want her to go away,” says Sprowls, a retired IT worker who’s lived in the area since the 1990s. When asked why the encampments irk him so much, Sprowls says “it is a degradation of the neighborhood. Every little thing that the city does to enable bad behavior makes it worse to live here.”
At one point, Sprowls and another neighbor that declined to give his name got into a verbal altercation with volunteers that helped encamped residents temporarily move. “Move her into your backyard if you want to save the world,” yelled the neighbor. The altercation dissipated when the group of five realized no one was convincing anyone of anything.
Before moving to Dupont Circle five months ago, Stevie used to stay at a tent in the K Street NE underpass in NoMa that was permanently cleared in January to make room for a pedestrian walkway. She’s been trying to move off the streets, but she and an outreach worker with Miriam’s Kitchen have had trouble proving that she’s been chronically homeless for at least a year, which could make her eligible for a housing voucher.
The other tent that was temporarily cleared shelters Keith Richardson. He’s been living in the tent in front of the McDonalds for nearly two months now, after he was kicked out of the 801 East Men’s Shelter in Southeast D.C. for getting into a physical altercation. He says he was enrolled in the shelter’s transitional rehabilitation program because he’s long struggled with substance misuse, but was recently asked to leave after he defended himself in a fight.
“I left home at 13 years old,” Richardson tells City Paper, “and I was already addicted to drugs by that point.”
Richardson has gone through a lot in his life, but he gets by with help from his church and friends. A new friend of his, Robert Williams, actually pitched the tent in front of McDonald’s and let Richardson stay there when he got kicked out of the shelter. The tent has become home to many people experiencing homelessness over the past couple years, including Alice Carter, who died in December. While he’s thankful that the sanitation workers picked up the trash near his tent, Richardson says the sweep itself—the act of having to move his belongings just to return them in an hour or so—is hurtful. It’s made more difficult because he has a disability and relies on a walker.
“I turned my back to it, so I didn’t have to actually look at what was going on behind me,” says Richardson. “I have schizophrenia, depression, and I have PTSD. I’m on medication for all of those things and I get really emotional … I’m really weepy in the morning so I did not want to look at that and get emotional over what’s happening.”
Given that tensions are high right now and people can become irritable during sweeps, as perhaps was the case on Thursday, advocates for people experiencing homelessness called on the mayor’s office to cut back on the regularly scheduled clearings and just remove trash. During trash removals, encamped residents do not need to temporarily move all their belongings but can set aside trash they want the Department of Public Works to throw away.
“Everything is so influx and dangerous right now, it just seems like that would be a smart move by the city,” says Ann Marie Staudenmaier, astaff attorney with Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “Honestly, when we are there for those cleanups, we are dragging people’s tents away and we are making very close contact with people … you are not supposed to be in close contact with anybody right now.”
When City Paper asked about this issue during a press conference on Friday, Mayor Muriel Bowser said the executive would provide an update at a later date. She reassured the public that homeless outreach workers with the D.C. government are continuing to provide services to people experiencing homelessness and are distributing hand sanitizer. As of Monday morning, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services had “encampment protocol engagements” scheduled through the second week of April on its website, but by the end of the work day, April dates were removed and the March dates listed were “trash-only engagements”.
City Paper reached out to DMHHS for comment, but did not hear back in time for publication. Advocates who work with people experiencing homelessness learned Monday that DMHHS would suspend encampment clearings through March.
These clearings have typically occurred Tuesdays and Thursdays for the last three to four years, says Staudenmaier. While she wasn’t present at the sweep in Dupont Circle on Thursday (another lawyer with Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless was), Staudenmaier has gone to plenty to make sure encamped residents’ rights are not being violated. She says these clearings are generally disruptive, especially when they occur in crowded encampments sites like in NoMa, where tents line M and L streets NE.
“It doesn’t accomplish anything,” Staudenmaier tells City Paper. “All it does is make life more difficult for people whose lives are already incredibly difficult. It’s just this unnecessary exercise of ‘we are in charge and we are going to make your life miserable. If you don’t move your stuff, we are going to throw it away.’”
It’s unclear how DMHHS picks an encampment site to sweep, but the agency has received multiple emails from people complaining about the Dupont encampments. These encampments have become a point of contention among residents who live in nearby apartment buildings. The advisory neighborhood commissioner for that area, Aaron Landry, has received various calls and emails about the Dupont encampments.
“The people who don’t mind them there don’t necessarily speak up to me. And I’ve asked some neighbors what they thought. I had a neighbor, a guy in his 20s, and he said ‘yeah, they’ve been friendly to me and if I have spare change, I’ll give it to them. No problem.’ It’s no issue,” says Landry. “And then I have some other neighbors that compare what’s happening with their own problems on their own property. People say ‘well, if I do this with my trash or if I leave this out on the sidewalk, I’m going to get a fine but these people get to do whatever they want.’”
Most who write to him, Landry says, are genuinely frustrated because they see the city offering homeless services but they do not see these services reaching the people in their neighborhood. Some housed residents do write to him just to complain about the unhoused residents.
“This homeless situation has [e]scalated to the highest peak,” wrote one Dupont resident on Oct. 30 to Landry’s government email address. “It is unbelievable that residents who pay their taxes and follow all the rules have to tolerate these types of unpleasant situations ranging from harassment and insults if you do not provide them with money.”
Landry forwards these emails to the mayor’s office so they know how his constituents feel or he has the constituents call the city directly.
Sometimes these conversations are in private. City Paper learned of a private Facebook group called “1630 R Street” where one of the administrators of the 51-member group reached out to DMHHS to complain about the Dupont encampments. The agency responded to say there is a scheduled cleanup for March 12.
“Unfortunately, we are unable to restrict the encampment residents from returning, after we have finished with the cleanup,” wrote the DMHHS encampment coordinator. “Persons with no housing alternatives living on the street are protected in part under the 4th and 6th Amendments of the US Constitution.”
Screenshots from the group also show that residents in the building had issues with encamped residents and residents who use housing vouchers to pay rent, accusing the latter of breaking building rules and causing disturbances. City Paper reached out to the two administrators of the Facebook group, but they declined to be quoted in the article.