Credit: Chelsea Cirruzzo

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D.C. residents experiencing homelessness will soon be prohibited from pitching tents in the K Street underpass between 1st and 2nd streets NE, and all existing tents encamped under the underpass must be cleared by next Thursday. 

That’s according to a new directive by the Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services (DMHHS).

Bright orange notices appeared on both ends of the underpass last week. They state that all property blocking the sidewalk is now subject to immediate removal and disposal.  

“Leave property at your own risk,” the sign warns. According to the sign, the sidewalk will be cleared on Thursday, Jan. 16 to make way for pedestrians. 

Deputy Mayor of Human Health and Services Wayne Turnage tells City Paper that the clearing of the underpass will be permanent.

“One of the issues we have to be concerned about is that their existence creates a health and safety hazard not just for the [housed] residents but for the residents living in the encampments,” he says, adding that this particular underpass has been known for blocking pedestrians and causing them to step into the street. 

The sudden removal of the encampment to create a pedestrian passageway comes a few months after D.C. officials told NoMa residents in emails that they were floating the idea of creating pedestrian safe passageways. Some residents had asked for the encampments to be cleared.

Earlier, in August, the NoMa Business Improvement District wrote a controversial letter decrying the state of the encampments in underpasses on K, M, and L streets NE. The letter, signed by NoMA BID president Robin-Eve Jasper, called on residents to bring their complaints to city officials. 

In December, both housed and unhoused residents, as well as the NoMa BID, met at the Father McKenna Center to discuss solutions. Many wanted more affordable housing, and for amenities like bathrooms to be made available to people experiencing homelessness. Housed residents asked how they could donate their time or resources.  

At least 40 people will be displaced come Jan. 16, estimates Aaron Howe, a Ph.D. candidate at American University completing their dissertation on the encampments. Howe was first to bring attention to the new signs. They were on their way to school when they noticed that clean-ups were scheduled in the NoMa area in unusually rapid succession—the first on Jan. 7 and the second on Jan. 16.

Clean-ups are part of the city’s encampment protocol, but typically are scheduled every two weeks. They require residents to move all of their belongings while the underpasses are cleaned. The process is the subject of a lawsuit by two residents experiencing homelessness who say the city should not dispose of personal property, but store it. 

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According to a notice posted to the DMHHS website on Dec. 13, the protocol also recently changed, now requiring the DC Department of Human Services to arrive 30 minutes—as opposed to a full hour—before a clean-up to provide encamped residents opportunities to store their property.

The previous protocol prohibited officials from disposing of personal items, such as IDs, medication, photographs, bikes, and functional tents. This new protocol still prohibits officials from disposing of these items, but specifies that it is only “when they are in plain sight,” and prohibits officials from going through belongings to identify these items. 

The new protocol also notes that clean-ups will be suspended in the event of severe weather events, such as hypothermia alerts. 

Turnage tells City Paper that the protocol is still a working document, and his office is working with the Office of the City Administrator to make it more effective to those living in encampments. Jessica Smith, policy advisor to DMHHS, says the small changes made in December align more with the long-standing practices already in place, and also clarifies that DMHHS takes the lead over the protocol, as opposed to DHS. 

On Monday at the K Street NE encampment, Howe was confused as to why two clean-ups were happening one week after another. Residents living there pointed out that the second clean-up would be permanent. According to Smith, the signs had been up since Thursday, Jan. 2 and Friday, Jan. 3. She says that DMHHS has been actively engaged with the encampment. Smith is the lead during the engagement protocol. “As soon as the signs were posted, we engaged with people who were there and explained it,” she says. “Everyone is aware of this.”

Howe posted a photo of the signs to Twitterwhere the news quickly gained traction. 

Howe is worried about the people currently in the underpass. “Now that means 40 tents that have to go somewhere else.” 

Roxy, a 24-year-old resident of the K Street encampment who was sitting outside her tent on Monday night, is eyeing the other encampments in the area. She declined to give her last name, but told City Paper that she came to the K Street underpass a month ago from an encampment in Foggy Bottom since the weather turned cold. Being under the bridge gives her added shelter.

“The plan is to snag another spot at the bridge,” she says, but notes that the other underpasses are already packed with tents. 

Roxy says she understands why the K Street underpass was specifically targeted, pointing out that the sidewalk is half as wide as the M and L Street sidewalks. Pedestrians walking through the underpass pass tents single-file. 

“It’s forcing our hand,” she says, pointing at the line of tents. “We could fall into the street.” 

Lavalle Givens, 38, another resident of the K Street encampment has only been there for three days. Smoking a cigarette outside his tent, Givens shrugs when asked where he’ll go next. 

“I’ll probably get a hotel,” he says. “I got means of surviving. I’ve got friends. I can deal with it.” He says he has been homeless since the age of 12 and has put his daughters up in an apartment. While he has experience surviving on the streets, he says, they do not. 

The city has been weighing the idea of a pedestrian-safe passage zone since last year. In emails obtained by City Paper, Jasper pressed Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, the Department of Human Services, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office, and employees of DMHHS on implementing the policy as early as last May. 

In October, NoMa BID told City Paper it was working with DMHHS on the policy and the city was considering it. Allen also confirmed he was considering it, but wanted to work with the mayor’s office on it. 

Eric Tars, the legal director for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, tells City Paper that he understands the city’s need to maintain public spaces, but urges D.C. to offer people safe, long-term alternative locations to go to before ordering removal.

To start enforcing these sorts of policies when those alternatives aren’t yet available just doesn’t make sense,” he says, predicting it’ll drive people to areas where they’ll be at risk of exposure to weather or higher crime against them, while others will be at risk of imprisonment if they fail to comply with the new policy.

“Nobody wants to actually be sleeping under an underpass,” he says. “If there was a better place for people to go, they’d take it in an instant.”