A tent under the train overpass on the 100 block of L Street NE.
A tent under the train overpass on the 100 block of L Street NE. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Dolores sits alone on a concrete ledge in NoMa while trains rattle 50 feet away.

For the moment, her only company is her stuff: a small Popeyes box; a tattered Bible open to Colossians; several plastic bags filled with socks, snacks, and gloves; and a pile of blankets, each a different color.

The temperature feels like it’s in the low 20s. Dolores is bundled up, reciting Bible verses. She wears two beanies and at least as many coats, the outermost of which has a fur hood. Her top-layer beanie has an American eagle emblem and says “D.C.”

Two pens, one purple and the other brown, hang from the lapel of an inner jacket. She’s donned a string of turquoise beads and heart-shaped purple earrings. 

Dolores’ perch is down the block from Wunder Garten, a beer garden that advertises itself as “climate controlled.” It’s also around the corner from the flagship REI store, which opened at the historic Uline Arena in 2016 with long lines and commensurate hype.

NoMa has been booming with new construction and planned development over the past several years. That includes a recent spurt of so-called “placemaking projects.”

A construction project underway at 2nd and L streets NE Credit: Andrew Giambrone

Fur hood up, Dolores introduces herself when approached by a City Paper reporter. She gives her real first name, which she asks not be published because she doesn’t want her family to know she’s living like this: meal-to-meal and outdoors, taking cover beneath a Metro and Amtrak overpass when it rains or snows. Her spot is four blocks north of Union Station, where she says she’s lived too.

Until last Thursday, it was relatively easy for Dolores and her homeless neighbors to stay under this overpass on L Street NE and another on M Street NE. But then city workers came and swept through what had been clusters of tents and people’s possessions. Before the cleanup, there were about 15 tents on L Street, Dolores says.

The District provides different numbers. Sean Barry, a spokesman for Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services HyeSook Chung, notes there were about seven tents on L and M streets on the morning of the sweep. On earlier days, Barry adds, there were nearly 20 tents.

He says outreach teams had informed the residents of city services, but none of them took a hotline van to shelter on Thursday. Large signs posted on street lamps had foretold of the cleanup since Dec. 28.

A city cleanup sign in the M Street NE underpass Credit: Andrew Giambrone

Immediately following the sweep, something caught the homeless off guard. Contractors for the NoMa Business Improvement District, established by D.C. in 2007, put up fences on both sides of L and M streets.

The fencing has blocked off much of those sidewalks. As a result, the homeless can no longer pitch tents where they have for the past few years.

Many of the residents have shifted to the underpass on K Street NE, where fences haven’t yet gone up. On Monday, about 20 tents lined the passageway. Several more stood around the perimeter of Union Station. Four young women distributed care packages in Ziploc bags.

A care package in a Ziploc bag outside of a tent in the K Street NE underpass Credit: Andrew Giambrone

“As a country, we’re in the hole,” Dolores says. She speaks loudly, as if she’s lost some of her hearing, and says she’s in her 50s. 

She points at the fences on L Street. “Like them doing that. That’s wrong.”

Dolores says everyone was “shocked” by the installation of the barriers. “People thought they could move their stuff back,” she explains. “One man put his head in his hands and I think he started crying. People was hurting, saying ‘I can’t believe they’re allowed to do this.’”

Camping on public space owned by the District is illegal, as is blocking public rights-of-way. That’s why Dolores doesn’t use a tent. She says she doesn’t have one, knowing that the city asks people to break them down. So when it rained on Thursday night, she brought a chair beneath the overpass and slept on it.

Dolores says she used to work at the Philadelphia International Airport before she fell on hard times. She moved back to D.C. in 2012 and stayed with a cousin while she looked for a new job. It didn’t work out, like it hasn’t for her homeless neighbors. 

“A lot of people thought it was an act of cruelty,” Dolores says of the fencing. She pauses. “It’s lonely and scary out there.”

A sign for the “Lightweave” installation and unattended items at the L Street NE underpass Credit: Andrew Giambrone

Since 2012, the NoMa BID and the associated NoMa Parks Foundation have planned to install art in the L and M street underpasses as well as those on K Street and Florida Avenue NE, BID President Robin-Eve Jasper says. 

The selected displays for the L and M street underpasses are called “Lightweave” and “Rain,” and they involve dynamic LED lights. Winners for the two additional displays haven’t been announced.

The budget for the four art projects is $2 million. That money comes out of the $50 million the District appropriated to the BID, in 2013, to support public amenities in the historically industrial neighborhood. Several development executives whose firms have projects across D.C. sit on the BID’s board.

Jasper, a former real estate chief for Mayor Adrian Fenty, says the displays were initially contemplated when “far fewer” people lived under the overpasses. She says the fencing on L and M streets is necessary for construction that’s about to begin this month and is expected to last until April. 

The installations, she adds, will spruce up the “dimly lit, unappealing, unattractive underpasses.”

“We wanted to make them comfortable and inviting,” Jasper explains, recalling that prostitution and drug activity used to happen at the sites. The fences will come down once the construction is finished, she says, though the displays are planned to be permanent.

“We understand that everybody is going to be inconvenienced,” says Jasper. Pedestrians and cyclists, for instance, now have to navigate narrower sidewalks.

The south sidewalk on M Street NE is temporarily closed. Credit: Andrew Giambrone

In its current strategic plan, the NoMa BID points out that it has “helped place 20 homeless people in housing and helped connect 50+ people to services” through outreach. Jasper says the BID received over 300 comments about the projects from a community engagement process that started several years ago.

Those figures don’t seem to matter to some of the homeless living in the K Street underpass. On Monday, a young woman with blonde hair who said she lived there said, “We think the art thing is probably just bogus.”

When asked about the perception that NoMa business leaders want to push out the homeless, Jasper says that isn’t the case. “There’s never really good optics around this,” she says. “I do think it’s a diversion to focus on the temporary fencing of the sidewalks rather than what the real issues contributing to homelessness are.”

She says those issues include shelter conditions, mental illness, and a lack of affordable housing. “I’m hoping that the attention this is getting will ultimately lead to real improvements,” says Jasper.

A sign for the “Rain” installation at the M Street NE underpass Credit: Andrew Giambrone

Encampmentcleanupshave becomeregular occurrences under the administration of Mayor Muriel Bowser. Officials say they’re intended to protect the health and safety of homeless residents and the general public. 

But critics say the sweeps merely displace people in the short term and waste taxpayer money. They describe the cleanups as band-aid fixes for a deeply entrenched problem.

In NoMa, past is prologue: D.C. dismantled an encampment in the L Street underpass last June.

“It’s a whack-a-mole game,” says homeless advocate Eric Sheptock, who is homeless himself. Sheptock walked through the neighborhood’s underpasses following the Jan. 11 sweep and posted a self-narrated video of the aftermath on his Facebook page.

“You want to get people into housing, and into shelter if not housing,” he says. “That’s positive.”

The REI flagship store inside the Uline Arena at M Street and Delaware Avenue NE Credit: Andrew Giambrone

D.C.’s homeless population has ballooned in the wake of the economic recession. Last January, officials recorded 7,473 homeless people. That was a 10.5 percent decline compared to January 2016, but still a 40.5 percent increase from 2007. 

For a subset of this total, unsheltered single adults, the number rose from 318 in 2016 to 897 in 2017. Last year’s homeless census occurred on an unseasonably warm night, so residents may not have gone indoors. The 2018 annual census is scheduled to take place next Wednesday.

The city’s population has also surged since the recession. In December, Bowser declared that D.C. was projected to reach 700,000 residents “within the next few months.”

That’s meant more tax revenue for anti-homelessness and other programs. But the growth has fueled gentrification pressures in some neighborhoods.

D.C. also guarantees a rare, legal right to shelter during extreme weather. In effect, shelters can fill up quickly when temperatures drop below freezing.

Another view of the Uline Arena from Delaware Avenue NE Credit: Andrew Giambrone

Dolores is wary of shelters. She says many people she knows who have entered them have returned to the streets shortly thereafter. Some, she says, act “batty” when they come back. She says shelters have too many rules and requirements in her experience, and that they don’t end a person’s homelessness.

On dangerously cold nights, Dolores says she’s been fortunate enough to benefit from strangers’ kindness. Men and women, sometimes acting in groups, have paid for her to stay in hotels for nights at a time, including NoMa’s Hilton Garden Inn on First Street NE. 

She recalls putting lotion on her skin, taking showers, and microwaving noodle cups there. “A real hotel, not roach-ridden!” she says.

Fences in the underpasses or not, Dolores realizes that she’s picked a strategic spot to lay her head. In the course of an hour on Monday, five Good Samaritans gave her clothes, bottled water, a storage bag, meals, snacks—and acknowledgement. 

The third, a woman in a white BMW with a child in the back seat, gifted her Oscar Mayer turkey, prepared food, and an apple.

Dolores cracked a smile and laughed. “I’m waiting for that one to come with the key,” she said.