Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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NoMa residents, housed and unhoused, came together last night in the Father McKenna Center at North Capitol and I streets NW to vent frustrations about the homeless encampments scattered in underpasses around NoMa, but also to discuss solutions for everyone in the community.

As participants debated and gave suggestions, one group was glaringly missing: the D.C. government. 

Street Sense Media put together the panel, which included a man living in an encampment underneath an underpass at K Street NE, housed residents, and advocates. 

Both the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Wayne Turnage and the NoMa Business Improvement District declined to speak on the panel. According to Street Sense Media, DMHHS declined because D.C. is part of pending litigation regarding how property is handed during encampment clean-ups. The NoMa BID, which wrote an open letter in August that sparked immediate discussion about the underpasses, offered to attend in a listening capacity. 

However, Robin-Eve Jasper, president of the NoMa BID and the author of the letter, spoke up several times to clarify what she says were misinterpretations of the letter. She also asked what could be done for the encamped individuals. 

“Is this the best we can do for people? Is this what we want for people? That they live in underpasses and they are not housed? We want more for people and we’ve not been able to get any traction,” she said. 

That was why, she stated, the NoMa BID chose to write an open letter in August urging NoMa residents to write to city lawmakers about the encampments. In the letter, Jasper cited unsafe and unsanitary conditions in the underpasses and wrote that mental illness and substance use disorders were often the reason people “choose to live on the street rather than stay in their housing or accept shelter.” 

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In October, City Paper received, via a Freedom of Information Act request, emails sent from NoMa residents to city officials in the immediate aftermath of the letter, calling for the encampments to be cleared.

On Thursday night, it was evident that frustrations and a desire for solutions were what had brought people to the Father McKenna Center. Much of the discussion focused on those frustrations, particularly ones brought on by the letter itself.

NBC4 reporter Mark Segraves, who moderated the panel, opened up by asking who lived in the NoMa area. More than half the room of approximately 50 people raised their hands. When he asked how many people were experiencing homelessness, only a few hands went up.

Talk quickly turned to why some encamped residents may not go into shelters. Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless attorney Ann Marie Staudenmaier said shelters in the city lack enough beds or have too many rules, forcing people to sleep on the streets. She said the letter perpetuated the myth that people chose to live on the streets.

Reina Sultan, a housed NoMa resident, said she’d seen internet commenters spreading that myth. Keith Mantel, another housed NoMa panelist, said that NoMa residents didn’t believe people wanted to be homeless and were instead frustrated with the encampments for blocking pedestrian access.

Mike Harris, who lives in the K Street NE encampment, said that the letter brought up some legitimate concerns, like panhandling and drug abuse. “There are issues of encroachment on the sidewalk and I’m in a wheelchair so I have a little bit of concern with that,” he said. “There are some people who are afflicted with some serious mental illness.” 

Harris, 59, earlier highlighted the difficulty in getting help: He’s been homeless for 15 years and only recently got a housing voucher. He is expecting to leave the encampment in the coming weeks. 

A young woman, who identified herself as a NoMa resident, defended the NoMa BID, saying she has seen drug use on the streets and witnessed overdoses, as well as public defecation. “It’s very confusing to me,” she said. “You can do drugs in broad daylight at 9 a.m. on a Wednesday and run to the cops and ask them to help you.”

Sultan shot back that housed residents also use drugs, but in the comfort of their own homes, avoiding immediate criminalization. Another man said the letter gave him the impression that the NoMa BID was annoyed and wanted the encampments gone.

That’s when Jasper jumped in. Earlier, she had briefly spoken up to say that the letter never said housing was not the solution to homelessness; rather, it said it wasn’t the only solution. 

At this point in the meeting, she said the letter was written in frustration “because we’ve been working with the city very hard, for probably two years now. Trying to get the city to do more,” she said. She added that the NoMa BID wanted to see the city act by making pedestrian spaces safer and cleaner.

With only 15 minutes left in the discussion, Harris quickly interjected that the letter was not the core issue of the meeting anyway. “The issue is homelessness. Can we solve it?” he called out. 

Emily Kaiser, a resident of NoMa, asked what those solutions could be. “Is it writing to Bowser?” she asked. Several people clapped. 

Earlier on in the discussion, Segraves brought attention to the Bowser administration’s absence, giving the same reason DMHHS gave Street Sense. Segraves noted that early on in Mayor Muriel Bowser’s tenure, she had told him she would not criminalize homelessness.  “Within six months of that, they were displacing residents underneath Whitehurst Freeway,” he said.

Attendees chimed in throughout the meeting with their own ideas for solutions.

Harris suggested using tiny homes like the ones in homeless communities in Denver, Colorado, in vacant lots. “Let’s try to sign a five-year lease on a few of these vacant lots right here in the city,” he said. “Let’s give people hope when they have a roof over their head or a door to lock.”

Sultan suggested that the luxury apartments popping up in NoMa could offer their vacant units to individuals experiencing homelessness. Earlier this year, the Washington Post reported on the tensions that erupted when an upscale apartment tried to do that. 

Others called for port-o-potties and medical services, including medical vans coming to the encampments daily to check on people. Some asked if local businesses could open their doors to allow people to use the bathrooms or shower. 

When a man asked what volunteer opportunities were available, both Staudenmaier and a representative with HIPS, a harm reduction group, said they were always looking for volunteers for outreach activities.

Harris asked for clothing, food, or places to store clothing or items for different seasons. He also called for engagement from housed residents, thanking the man who asked the question. 

“You already passed the first step: You want to help. That’s great,” he said, adding that it would be nice for housed residents to invite those living in the encampments out some time.  

“You can even come and get up a few of us from time-to-time and take us to a cookout or barbeques somewhere,” he said, “so we don’t need to be stuck there under the bridge twenty-four seven.”