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Merchants and cops in Georgetown have a new weapon against the homeless: cameras.
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
The Georgetown Visitor’s Center is a tiny building on M Street NW with a picturesque bay window. Funded by local businesses, the center provides maps and brochures for all the historic “Village Attractions”: the Old Stone House, Dumbarton House, Dumbarton Oaks, the C&O Canal.
If you’re looking for something more contemporary, though, just ask for the handy guide to the neighborhood’s homeless.
A catalog of Georgetown’s panhandlers and street dwellers rests in a drawer in the Visitor’s Center’s front desk. It’s a green plastic binder containing 30-odd photocopied pages of street people who spend their days and nights on the red-brick sidewalks of Georgetown.
Some of the photos look candid; others look posed. Underneath each picture are a name, date of birth, and Social Security number, along with a description of the individual’s habits and, in some cases, behavioral problems.
The dossiers were compiled by Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Officers Alan Parker and Bryan Weingard, who copied their handiwork to share with the Georgetown Partnership, the 3-year-old business improvement district (BID) that runs the Visitor’s Center.
Parker says he and his partner provided the information they collected to the Georgetown Partnership as a way of “sharing intelligence” and “opening lines of communication.” He says the catalog of street people helps the Georgetown Partnership’s three or so public liaisons—known as “ambassadors”—stay on top of which homeless they can approach and which they should avoid. “It’s to keep [the employees] safe,” says Parker.
Roe Elam, the BID’s program manager, says the real beneficiaries are the homeless: “[The photos] are really for helping us identify individuals so we can find ways to help these folks.”
Those living on the street, though, appear to prefer a more anonymous existence. Just ask Carlton Sullivan. In March, Sullivan says, Parker and Weingard took his picture on two occasions. The first time, he says, he was standing at a bus shelter on Wisconsin Avenue NW. The second time, he was standing in front of Georgetown Bagelry. On the ground were two bags of trash. Though Sullivan told Weingard that the trash bags belonged to a nearby restaurant, the officer snapped his photo next to the garbage anyway. He also wrote Sullivan a $50 ticket for illegal storage of wares in public space. A month later, Sullivan appeared in court with a pro bono attorney determined to challenge the ticket. City attorneys didn’t pursue the charge, and Sullivan didn’t have to pay the $50.
Since his ticketing, Sullivan makes sure to head to Foggy Bottom by 3 p.m.—when Parker and Weingard start their shift. “They harass just to keep harassing,” he says. “I just try to stay out of their way.”
Nathaniel Bost says he was pushing a cart filled with his belongings down M Street when Parker and Weingard asked to take his picture. Bost says he objected, but they photographed him anyway. “I wasn’t even doing nothing,” says Bost. “They stopped me, took my picture, saying they were taking pictures of every homeless in Georgetown.”
“Papa,” a man camping out in Key Bridge Park, recounts a similar tale. The officers told him: “‘We’re under orders to take pictures of all homeless.’” Papa says he refused: “I said, ‘You have pictures of me already.’” Papa is smiling in his BID mug shot.
The police insist that most of their subjects have no objection to the impromptu photo shoots. “In nine out of 10 of those pictures, they’re smiling,” says Parker, who adds that the photos are for identification purposes only; they can’t be used to close a criminal case or to identify suspects.
The department is currently drafting a policy on photographing people, says Peter Lavallee, a spokesperson for the Office of Corporation Counsel. Lavallee wouldn’t comment on whether the MPD can legally give out photos and personal information about the homeless—including Social Security numbers—to a private organization such as the Georgetown Partnership, citing the potential of future litigation.
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Second District Cmdr. Peter Newsham says he wasn’t aware that his officers had given any book of pictures of street people along with personal information to the BID. He says if they have, he’s not surprised: “We have a pretty close relationship with the BID and the [Georgetown] Business and Professional Association.”
In fact, Parker says the Georgetown Partnership lent him and Weingard the digital camera they take photos with—in addition to their department-issued Polaroid.
Homeless advocates wonder if the police and commercial interests aren’t a little too close. “Police in Georgetown have never been very friendly to the homeless,” says Ann Marie Staudenmaier, a staff attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “There’s a lot of pressure on police to drive them out.”
The pressure is coming from both businesses and nearby residents. “The businesses obviously do not like homeless panhandling,” says Ray Kukulski, president of the Citizens Association of Georgetown, who facilitated six “partnership for problem solving” meetings last year among business leaders, the police, and homeless advocates. He says business owners have been frustrated with the city’s inability to provide adequate drug and mental-health treatment to help get people off the streets.
The Georgetown Partnership is the only BID in town that doesn’t supplement the city’s existing homeless services. Both the Golden Triangle BID and the Downtown BID pay for homeless-outreach workers. The Downtown BID even supports its own drop-in center, spending about $378,000 on homeless services each year, says spokesperson Seamus Houston. The Georgetown BID relies on the Georgetown Ministry Center, at Grace Church on Wisconsin Avenue, which has outreach workers and runs a drop-in center.
Georgetown Partnership officials say they can’t afford to provide such services, in part because it costs them so much to keep the Georgetown shuttle bus running. However, says Elam, the partnership contributes financially to the Georgetown Ministry Center.
Elam and the BID brass can rest assured that homeless surveillance resonates with some Georgetowners. Don Crockett, president of the Georgetown Residents Alliance, looks back fondly on the mid-’90s, when the police aggressively ticketed and removed homeless people. The department “cracked down on those panhandlers,” he says. “Since then, there’s been a marked improvement.”
And if the enforcers ease up, Crockett says, he’ll end up with some new neighbors: “If word gets out to the population that does this, that Georgetown is a hospitable place to do this, it could turn around in days, weeks.”
A third copy of the photos of Georgetown’s panhandlers and homeless—on CD-ROM, no less—sits in the offices of the Georgetown Ministry Center. But Director Gunther Stern says he doesn’t use it. “I think it’s a bad thing,” he says. “I think it’s intimidating when police come and take your picture. When you’re paranoid, it’s got to be more intimidating.”
Other homeless-services providers in the city say they don’t take photos of their clients for that very reason: In many cases, doing so can easily fuel clients’ distrust and drive them away.
Homeless advocates argue that photographing has little legitimate purpose except to aid in the harassment of the homeless. Staudenmaier says D.C. police have also enforced the Panhandling Control Act of 1993, which prohibits aggressive panhandling, against people panhandling lawfully. And, she says, police have misused 19th-century municipal regulations that prohibit anyone from leaving “goods, wares, or merchandise in any public space for more than two hours” to regulate the homeless instead of commercial activity. The latter carries a fine from $50 to $100, along with jail time if the fines aren’t paid.
Second District officers deny that they harass panhandlers and the homeless. “There’s always been complaints about nuisance crimes, since I’ve been commander here,” says Newsham. “We get complaints about students in reference to the same types of violations. We enforce just as strictly upon them.”
Damon, a homeless man sitting near the corner of Wisconsin and M Streets, vouches for the officers’ use of discretion. “They caught me so red-handed, got me so many times, given me so many breaks,” he says. He says the officers have even given him beer money when he needed to “get my gauge up.” (“That’s crazy,” says Parker. “We don’t do that.”)
Damon says that earlier this spring, he let Parker and Weingard take his picture and gave them personal information willingly. “They know all our routine, all about us, know our Social Security numbers,” he notes. “I only entrust my Social Security number with someone I trust.”
“Because of Sept. 11, I don’t mind that much,” he says. “They want to secure the homeland. They don’t want me panhandling, giving my money to bin Laden. These people really don’t mean no harm. They just trying to keep the invasion from coming.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.