Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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On a crisp October morning, the residents of the K Street NE underpass were in full motion. They gathered up their belongings in large black garbage bags or wrapped them in tarps. Others collapsed tents. One tent, seemingly empty, had writing on it in halting black ink: DO NOT TOUCH. NOT ABANDONED. 

Aaron Howe, a Ph.D. candidate at American University completing their dissertation on the encampments, walked briskly between the makeshift communities on M Street NE and K Street NE, pausing to give one unsheltered resident cigarettes. 

By 10 a.m., city officials would be there to clean the area and, by then, all tents and personal property needed to be removed for a couple of hours or disposed of. 

With an hour to go and a city official on scene providing trash bags, the atmosphere was calm—the kind of calm that comes with focused, familiar labor. But there was a layer of tension underneath. 

Just 12 years ago, the thousands of people living in the area reaching north of Massachusetts Avenue near Union Station might not have known what NoMa even was. The NoMa Business Improvement District rebranded the area when it formed in 2007, taking the term from a 1998 economic report.

That same BID posted a controversial open letter on Aug. 21, 2019. Signed by NoMa BID president Robin-Eve Jasper, the letter said the conditions in the underpass encampments were worsening. Jasper wrote of complaints that detailed bloody needles, harassment, and rotting food. She called for more focus on what the BID said was the core of homelessness: mental health and substance use disorders.  

The letter also called on NoMa residents to contact Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen and Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Wayne Turnage with complaints. 

The reaction to the letter was swift. Advocates, including the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) and community nonprofit HIPS, hit back, calling the letter dehumanizing. Both said the focus should be on supportive housing where people experiencing homelessness can also receive mental health treatment, job training, and other services.

Encamped residents also said the letter was harsh, coming just days after someone was found dead in a nearby tent.

When City Paper wrote about the letter in August, few residents would say they wanted the people living in the underpasses to leave. City Paper perused comments left on social media and online forums regarding the underpasses, and just one resident, who would only identify herself as Kate, would tell City Paper she agreed. Kate insisted that the people in the underpasses wanted to live there to avoid paying rent. 

But in emails to the city, NoMa residents showed different colors. A Freedom of Information Act request to Turnage’s office and Allen’s reveals both the contents of these emails and the demands the BID made of city officials in the months leading up to Jasper’s public letter. 

Today, the city is weighing legislation to modify the encampments and create pedestrian-only passages that would separate the encamped individuals from other NoMa residents. 

***

The city established an encampment protocol, or clean-up process for the tent communities, back in 2005, according to Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless attorney Ann Staudenmaier.

Known fully as the Protocol for the Disposition of Property Found on Public Space and Outreach to Displaced Persons, it outlines the roles of various D.C. departments, including DMHHS, Metropolitan Police Department, and the District Department of Transportation in engaging with encampments. It states what the city can and cannot do with property within the encampments. 

It allows the city, for example, to dispose of unclaimed property left in public spaces, but prevents the city from throwing out certain items, including identification documents, functional tents, and bikes. These must be stored by the city. It also outlines the process of standard disposition, the clean-up process that is scheduled two weeks in advance, and immediate disposition, an urgent clean-up process when a complaint is made that shows the encampment poses an immediate health, safety, or emergency risk.

Both require encampment residents to move, dispose of, or store their belongings during the clean-up. 

The protocol also says the involved D.C. government agencies must visit the encampments in the 14 days leading up to a standard clean-up to inform residents of the process and offer to connect them with housing and shelter resources. 

While the protocol is seen as necessary and welcome by many unsheltered residents, it comes with frustrations. Michele Hydier, who used to live in the encampment on M Street NE, previously told City Paper that it means temporarily relocating one’s entire home and exposes residents to potential theft. It also ignites fears that the city will take people’s tents and other property.

“That’s someone’s entire life belongings,” Staudenmeier says. The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless sends representatives for clean-ups to oversee the process and inform unsheltered residents of their rights. One of their main concerns is ensuring valuables that are supposed to be stored aren’t thrown away, which is why the group developed signage for residents who cannot be present on the day of a clean-up. 

“We created those signs to make it harder for the city to argue that the property is abandoned,” Staudenmeier says. Without legal representatives there, she says, no one is advocating on behalf of the encampment residents. She says outreach by the city could be better and more active. “I’ve never once seen Charles Allen out there, nor have I seen Wayne Turnage. I think [Turnage] once might’ve been there,” she says. 

Both Howe and Staudenmeier say frustration is mounting among encamped residents regarding the way the city handles clean-ups.

Alexandra Bradley, mobile services manager at the nonprofit HIPS, says the organization has seen more external negativity from passersby since the letter and knows more people have been making complaints. 

“I think that the letter kind of emboldens people to make complaints in a way that they might not have thought to do before,” she says, adding that these complaints do not impact the mission of HIPS, and that many unsheltered residents do not know about these complaints or pay much attention to them. 

On the recent October morning in the encampment, Howe pointed to the sidewalk in front of a boutique cycling studio. “Sometimes people will move their stuff here,” they said, which is not allowed and often leads to items being thrown out by the city. This is where the idea of encamped residents becoming service-resistant comes from, Howe explained: People get frustrated with the government and less likely to trust it.

***

After NoMa BID’s letter came out, more than 30 NoMa residents took to Allen and Turnage’s inboxes with their complaints.

Many of the emails echoed the sentiment of NoMa BID’s letter: Residents say they feel empathetic toward people experiencing homelessness, but add that the area smells and is full of trash. Some detail incidents of harassment and drug use. Most, if not all, express concern about their personal safety and wellbeing.

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“My heart breaks for the men and women who find themselves living on the street. I realize how fortunate I am to live the life that I do,” wrote John Cove on Aug. 26. He wrote that he no longer walks through the M, L and K Street encampments. “The smell of urine and feces is overwhelming, needles and other drug-related items litter the ground, and the aggressive panhandling has reached new levels,” he wrote. 

Another resident, Jonathan Frank, called the underpasses a public health and safety concern. “We all care deeply about affordable housing and mental health challenges facing these vulnerable neighbors in the encampments, but allowing them to remain in the underpasses— harassing pedestrians, relieving themselves in plain view, exacerbating the rodent crisis, and creating insufficient space for disabled passersby—is NOT a solution and is NOT compassionate to anyone involved,” Frank wrote.

Joshua M. Gibson wrote he had once used public housing and food assistance himself, but that the encamped individuals were violating the laws of “both D.C. and decency itself.” “The encampments are growing. They appear permanent. They are becoming more aggressive and emboldened … And someone is going to get hurt,” Gibson wrote.

Some emails were harsher.

“The homelessness is becoming unbearable. They have tents under the bridge but the worst part is the trash, rodents and smell of urine there. It’s disgusting. Can either of you do something please. It’s no pleasant go to [sic] and see this every morning or evening,” Juan Oscar Torres-Douglas wrote to Allen and Turnage on Sept. 2. 

Several people referred to the encampments as illegal and asked the city to immediately remove them. 

“It’s gotten ridiculous: not only do the homeless people harass women, several have erected fences because they evidently feel they can stay there so long. There’s trash everywhere, it smells truly horrendous, nowhere to walk except through them, and is generally a blight,” Gerardo Zampaglione wrote, before calling for rapid action from the D.C. government. 

Others reference businesses they feel that they can no longer access, including Barre3, La Colombe, Red Bear Brewing Co., CycleBar, and a nearby dog park. 

“I am a 23 year old woman who walks alone through the underpass daily to attend classes at CycleBar NoMa and things have gotten massively out of control,” Grace Collins wrote. “My roommate has had several times where people living there have yelled at her, and even blocked her pathway for ‘not looking at them’ or ‘acknowledging them.’”

Matthew Orchant wrote that he could no longer visit his favorite restaurant, Laos in Town, which he would visit every two weeks if he could. “However, because I must travel through [an underpass] to get there, at night, I go once every few months,” he wrote.

Others described physical altercations that left them fearful. Hannah Shea wrote that she has been chased through the underpass. Meredith Whitcomb wrote about being followed through an underpass after one of her fitness classes and when walking her dog. 

“As a 23-year-old woman I do not feel safe walking around my own neighborhood at night or even during the day at times,” Whitcomb wrote. 

Ravynn Li, 34, lives in a tent along M Street NE with his fiancee, Rayne. They were evicted from their place on Minnesota Avenue NE about two months ago and have been waiting for housing through the Pathways to Housing program. “Complaining is not gonna help, staring is not gonna help,” Li says of the people who emailed their complaints to Allen and Turnage and who walk by. Some of them take pictures and videos of the tents, he says. “It makes you feel like you’re in a zoo.”

Li says he hasn’t witnessed any altercations between residents and passersby, but acknowledges that it’s conceivable. He points to the tidy space around their tent and their trash bundled in a black bag.

“We’re taking care of our area,” he says. “And as far as interactions with people, the only thing we say is ‘good morning,’ ‘how you doing?’ ‘nice coat,’ shit like that. We don’t want anything from you, but you’re not gonna just stare at us like we’re animals either.”

Sometimes a conversation can go a long way, he adds. “Shit like that can save somebody’s life. People don’t understand that.”

Rayne, 29, says “you gotta find your happiness anyway you can. And like he said, nobody wakes up and is like, ‘I’m tired of my good paying job and 401(k) and I’m going to live under the bridge.’ The fact that people look down on us is just really…” She shakes her head.

Esperita Mills, whose tent on L Street NE is draped with blankets to keep it warm, says she and some other residents work to keep their space clean. She says she’s lived on the streets for the past two years.

“This is the best we can do,” Mills says. “We try to stick together here and clean up. We try to make sure everybody out here does their part. We’re one big family.”

In the first couple of weeks after the NoMa BID letter, just one NoMa resident sent an email denouncing the letter. In an email sent to Jasper on Aug. 21, Matthew Mead called the letter condescending and lacking empathy. “Clearly you’ve lost touch with the community you claim to represent. You do not speak for me,” Mead wrote. 

In their responses, city officials offered information on the clean-up schedule. Some residents responded with their own suggestions for the encampments: porta-potties, more designated storage areas, and more trash cans. 

Most of the emails to Allen and Turnage’s offices occur after Jasper’s letter, but among the emails City Paper received, some show the lead-up to her letter. 

The idea of a pedestrian-safe passage zone that Jasper advocated for in her letter first surfaced in a May 6, 2019 email exchange with Allen, the Department of Human Services,  Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office, and employees of DMHHS.  

Jasper wrote then that she had floated the idea of the passages within the First Street NE and K Street NE underpasses with the mayor’s office already. The zones would bar tents from specific areas inside the underpass to allow for pedestrians to pass through.

“We were assured that amendments to the Encampment Engagement Protocol to address this issue were under consideration and would soon be promulgated. It has been months and we have heard nothing further on this matter,” Jasper wrote. 

Jasper said these amendments would resolve the pedestrian issue, “diminish the suffering associated with the frequent encampment engagements that often end with people returning to the exact same spot they were removed from in hours or even minutes.” 

On July 16, Jasper wrote to Allen asking for his input on a joint legislative strategy for the amendments to be sent to Mayor Bowser. On Aug. 7, the letter was sent to Bowser and Allen was cc’d on it, along with Turnage, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, ANC 6C Commissioner Drew Courtney, and Laura Zeilinger, director of DHS.

In an email exchange on Aug. 18, Allen told NoMa resident David Anderson that he was exploring legislation to create such a zone. He also said he was looking into supportive housing and attributed the causes of homelessness to behavioral and mental illness, much like the NoMa BID letter did. 

A few days after Allen’s emails, Jasper’s letter was posted online, calling for the zones. 

A spokesperson with the NoMa BID tells City Paper that the BID has been in discussions with DMHHS on the proposal and, as far as they knew, the city is considering it. 

Allen also confirms with City Paper that he is looking into some legislative ideas, but wants to work with the mayor’s office on a policy “that makes sense across the city as well as specifically with NoMa.” 

“Ultimately we need to land on a long-term solution that balances the need for dignified housing for a population that is tough to serve with ensuring our sidewalks and public space are accessible and welcoming to everyone. But any legislative fixes would take months or even a year and we need changes to happen much sooner to improve the situation beneath the underpasses as the temperature drops,” he says. 

Rayna Smith, chief of staff at DMHHS, tells City Paper that her office is working to improve upon the engagement protocol. “Health and safety of all District residents is paramount and we’re working on ways to improve our processes in hopes of seeing better service connectivity and longer lasting sanitary effects after an Encampment Protocol Engagement (cleanup),” she says. 

She also says DMHHS is working to improve the way sidewalks are cleaned after a clean-up and placing more trash cans in certain areas to “better meet the needs of residents living in encampments.”

When asked what would happen, theoretically, if everyone at these encampments could no longer return after a clean-up, Howe said the answer was simple. 

“They will go somewhere,” but not far, Howe imagined. Perhaps they’d form smaller groups or find a different location within NoMa. “I don’t think they would leave the area. It’s where they do everything, you know?” 

Mitch Ryals contributed reporting. This post has been updated to reflect the history of the term “NoMa.”

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