Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File photo January 2018

This article is part of our 2019 contribution to the DC Homeless Crisis Reporting Project in collaboration with other local D.C. newsrooms. You can see all of our collective work published throughout the day at DCHomelessCrisis.press and join the public Facebook group to discuss how to act on this information and add context to areas we may have overlooked. 

On a recent Monday evening in NoMa, most people speed-walking under the bridge passing over M Street NE barely turned their heads. About 10 tents lined the underpass, some fortified with tarps, as their occupants either slept inside or sat in chairs outside of them. Bicycle riders raced past, cars rolled by, but no one stopped to talk, and few raised their eyes from the sidewalk. 

Sitting on a paint can right at the mouth of the underpass, near the entrance to the NoMa Metro Station, Michelle Hydier munched on a salad as Rick McNeill smoked nearby. Hydier had been on-and-off NoMa’s streets for fifteen years before local organization Pathways to Housing helped her secure an apartment, but she still comes to the underpass often to visit people like McNeill. He says he’s been living in his green tent with his girlfriend for two years as he waits to secure housing. 

The encampment that Hydier and McNeil stood in on Monday is just one of the encampments at the center of a controversial open letter the NoMa Business Improvement District wrote about homeless residents last week. 

Hydier has one word for the letter: harsh. “They’re making it sound like NoMa is Beverly Hills,” she said before gesturing around to the encampment, “and this is the ’hood.” 

On Wednesday, Aug. 25, the NoMA BID published an open letter saying that conditions were worsening in the underpass encampments and that “people are worried about their ability to safely traverse these public spaces.” The letter, signed by NoMA BID president Robin-Eve Jasper, detailed complaints residents had shared with the BID regarding the encampments and their residents, including: harassment, “aggressive panhandling,” used and bloody needles, rotting food, trash, broken glass, public nudity, prostitution, drug sales, and human excrement. 

The letter went on to say that the D.C. government’s focus on providing affordable housing and shelter options to encamped individuals was welcome, but misguided. Instead, NoMa BID wrote that what it considered was the core causes of homelessness—mental health and substance use disorders—were not being addressed.

“Such disorders are often the issues that cause people to choose to live on the street rather than stay in their housing or accept shelter … This is not to say that housing affordability, in general, is not an issue, but that housing alone, no matter how much is built, simply will not solve the encampment issues,” the letter read. It called on NoMa residents to contact Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, Mayor Muriel Bowsers office, and Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Wayne Turnage

The letter instantly sparked discussion. On the popular neighborhood blog PoPville, the letter generated over 160 comments. Some commenters called the situation untenable, complaining of the smell in the underpasses. Other commenters said the letter was thoughtful in explaining how NoMa residents felt about the underpasses. Yet another commenter said it lacked compassion. 

It also caused an upswing in complaints to Turnage, who tells City Paper that his office got far more complaints after the BID letter came out than what he had received before, and that the recent communications largely echoed the letter.

“We’re going to respond to the letter,” he says, “but we’ve been responding to the emails that the letter caused first.”

The relationship between NoMa BID and the encampments was fraught long before the letter. In January 2018, City Paper reported that city workers cleared the underpasses to make room for a new light-up art installation. And every two weeks, the city does a clean-up in the area. While Hydier says people appreciate the two-week clean, it does force the community to move their things to places like bike paths, leaving their property open to theft.

The relationship between NoMa residents and encampment residents is also fraught. McNeill says kids sometimes come through the underpass and kick the tents. 

One NoMa resident, who prefers to be known by her first name Kate for fear of backlash, says she welcomes NoMa BID’s letter. Kate, who has lived in NoMa for about eighteen months, says she doesn’t feel safe walking in the underpasses, citing catcalling and panhandling. 

“They want to be able to live like this, off the grid and without paying rent,” she says of the encampment residents. When asked if she thought there were people there who were forced to live on the street, she said she’s seen information handed out to encamped individuals for help and services. “They can get the help that they need,” she says. 

That isn’t the experience for all residents. Jennifer Sotloff, a 16-year NoMa resident, says she’s never been harassed. She thinks that forcing people out of the space—such as when art installations are put in—causes more disruption, forcing people onto bike paths or other parts of NoMa with their things. The art installations, she said, are “literally illuminating the problem.”

Another resident, Aaron Howe, who is completing his PhD dissertation at American University on the encampments and spends a considerable amount of time in the underpasses, says residents occasionally make snide remarks about the encamped individuals or literally hold their noses while passing through the spaces. 

“This hurts feelings,” he says. 

Jasper, who penned the letter, claims that the BID’s relationship with the encampments has always been positive. She says the BID has been active with the encamped community, from distributing information during hypothermia season to providing resource cards when the clean team goes around to the encampments. 

Hydier used to work with Jasper to advise the BID on encampment issues, they both confirm. But this, Hydier says, made the letter sting even more. 

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When the letter first came out, advocates, such as the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP), hit back. NLCHP said that the language in the letter dehumanizes the encamped individuals and downplays the importance of housing first and protecting the safety of those living in the encampments. 

“Insufficient income and a lack of affordable housing are the top causes of homelessness, which is why the housing first approach is vital. Housing stability makes it possible for a person to get or keep a job, address health problems, or get an education,” the group said. 

Jasper tells City Paper that her letter does not disagree with a housing first approach, but says the issue needs to be redefined as more than just an insufficient affordable housing issue. She hopes her letter opens up a conversation about mental health and substance use treatment. 

“People have a right to shelter, but how do we make shelters that have the right set of both services that are appealing to people that don’t have housing?” Jasper asked.

Eric Tars, the legal director for the NLCHP, thinks housing needs to meet people in the middle with adequate mental health care and substance use treatment provided at the point of housing. “It’s not that people are housing resistant. The services and housing are people-resistant,” Tars says. But he rejects the claim Jasper makes that these are the reasons people choose to live on the street.

“I think the choices people are making to ‘choose to live on the street’ is only in the absence of a better choice at their disposal,” he says. “Nobody actually needs to be living on the streets. If there are beds available to them that met them at whatever stage they’re at, they’ll take those beds.” 

Dora Hughes, associate research professor in health policy at The George Washington University, says the letter does minimize the importance of housing first, but still makes an important point. “It’s important to have permanent supportive housing where individuals are provided a place to stay and wraparound services that can help with health and employment,” she says. “Having those integrated into housing can be very effective.”

Turnage also emphasizes the importance of housing first. “The cause of homelessness is people don’t have a place to live,” he says. He rejects what he calls misconceptions that people want to live on the street. 

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The letter dwells most on the safety of residents passing through the space. It reiterates calls for a “pedestrian safe-passage zone.” 

“The creation of such zones would require the establishment of minimum clear sidewalk widths for busy commercial zones like the core of NoMa and would create appropriate procedures for immediately removing tents and other personal property obstructing a sidewalk,” the letter says. 

“It has gotten to the point where people who are not encamped are having a hard time moving around the neighborhood,” Jasper says.

Kate, for example, praised the art installations, which she says caused fencing to go up, pushing people from the underpass. 

But the NLCHP calls the pedestrian safe-passage language exclusionary because it creates a divide between those deemed worthy of safety (such as NoMa residents) and those deemed not (such as encamped residents). 

McNeill and Hydier both say they feel unsafe in the underpasses, particularly with drugs in the area. Someone recently died in a tent, which spooked McNeill. The Metropolitan Police Department confirms that an encamped person was found unresponsive in a tent on Thursday, a day after the BID letter came out, and was later declared dead. (The DC Office of the Chief Medical Examiner was unable to confirm the cause of death as the deceased was not identified by name in the police report.) StreetSense reported that another person died in an encampment in July. 

But McNeill also worries about the safety of shelters. “I don’t like shelters,” he says. “There can be fights. Arguments. People get stabbed sometimes.” 

A U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report published in January on understanding urban encampments also found that individuals living in encampments might reject shelters due to shortcomings in the shelters themselves, not so much out of a preference for the streets. These shortcomings include a lack of supportive services, a lack of privacy, and a lack of safety. 

This is something Turnage is aware of. He tells City Paper the District is working to take a supportive approach. “The first thing we’ve done is try and make shelters, including low-barrier shelters, safe places to live while people are seeking permanent housing,” he says, adding that the Department of Behavioral Health has a crisis outreach team for mental health issues for people experiencing homelessness. 

Howe, the American University PhD candidate, is worried that the NoMa BID letter itself has further compromised the safety of the encamped individuals. “If you look at issues like immigration, or homelessness, people try to make an ‘other,’” he says. “It creates a culture of fear around that person to create action.”

Alexandra Bradley, mobile services manager at the nonprofit HIPS, says she regularly safely walks through the underpasses during her work and spends time with the encamped community. HIPS provides safe syringe exchange programs, overdose prevention, and other harm reduction methods for those with substance use disorders who are also homeless, as well as safe sex information for those engaging in sex work to survive. 

“To discuss other human beings that way lacks decorum” she says of the letter. “They’re still residents in the area.” While she says that some individuals in the encampment have mental illnesses and substance use disorders, she feels that those issues were used as a crutch in the letter to dehumanize those in the encampments. 

“The problem of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing,” she says. “This is all about housing.” She says that instead of complaining, the BID could continue to work with HIPS on providing containers for needles and trash cans for condoms. “They know where to find us,” she says. 

Tars also thinks that there are other solutions the BID can pursue, including offering unrented office spaces for sleeping and increasing trash disposal. “Once a person has that safe, stable environment, they’ll be getting better sleep. They have a place to leave their belongings all day, they can go out and have interviews,” he says. 

Back in the encampment, Hydier says that while the encamped community needs mental health and substance use disorder services, even people in housing can have those same needs, too. 

And that’s all the more reason, she says, why those services are necessary: The encampment is part of the NoMa community. She pointed to where the person who died Thursday had been found, just a few tents away. “If people are dying on your bridge, this is NoMa.” 

She swept her arms wide, pointing at McNeill still smoking a cigarette, at a young woman smoothing her pencil skirt as she walked through the underpass, and at two bikers hitting their bells as they sped past.

“They want to go to their yoga class and they don’t want to be affected,” Hydier said. She put her salad down and pointed to the line of tents again. “But this is NoMa.”