Brandon Campbell was scrambling to put the remainder of his belongings in trash bags. Not everything fits into suitcases.
“I’m not good at moving,” says Campbell.
Campbell, 27, has been living in a tent on K Street NE for the last six months. Now, he’s preparing to move because D.C. is forcing his hand.
“We’re coming to the realization that we got evicted for being poor, for being homeless,” says Campbell. “We don’t even have a home to be evicted from and yet we’re still being evicted.”
On Thursday, all encamped residents of the K Street underpass between 1st and 2nd streets NE will have to clear all of their belongings and will not be permitted to return. As of Wednesday afternoon, Campbell’s tent was one of about 20 that has to be taken down by Thursday night, which is forecasted to reach a low of 28 degrees. Dozens of people experiencing homelessness and their advocates are now searching for solutions after the city ordered the underpass encampment permanently cleared. At least one advocate called the response “crisis-level.”
Campbell has been experiencing homelessness for six years total. He says the NoMa encampments are his safest option. Before that, he stayed at two D.C. homeless shelters—the first was infested with bedbugs and the second was dangerous. He says his girlfriend was nearly raped and he was stabbed by the man at the shelter when he intervened. Thanks to a new D.C. policy, he’s forced to relocate yet again.
The Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services (DMHHS) handed down the new policy, outlined on bright orange signs around the encampment, in early January. The signs sparked instant alarm among the encamped individuals living there and the community of advocates who reach out to them.
After Thursday, Jan. 16, the underpass will serve as a “pedestrian passageway” and any tents pitched in the area will be disposed of. Adjacent underpasses on M and L streets NE will be allowed to stay, although they’re still subject to biweekly clean-ups.
City officials floated the idea for this policy last year in response to complaints that housed NoMa residents and the NoMa Business Improvement District lodged against the encampments. NoMa BID President Robin-Eve Jasper showed support for the policy in an open letter published in August, citing pedestrian safety concerns.
According to Deputy Mayor of Human Health and Services Wayne Turnage, the permanent clearing is a matter of the health and safety for both pedestrians and the unhoused residents living there. He says the K street underpass, which is notably narrower than the ones on M and L, has been known to block pedestrians.
Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who represents the area, supports Turnage’s decision.
“Given that the sidewalk along the 100 block of K Street is narrower than on L or M, we have repeatedly tried to balance safe and clear passage with encampments. But it has remained a public safety issue for pedestrians, especially those in wheelchairs, pushing strollers, or using a walker or crutches,” says Allen in a statement to City Paper. “Long-term, I am fully committed to seeing the District find shelter or housing solutions for unsheltered residents.”
Advocates, however, say the city sped ahead on the policy without offering residents viable housing options. The city, meanwhile, has said it is offering outreach efforts, including calling both advocates and encamped individuals to a meeting with DMHHS on Tuesday night. According to Street Sense, a policy analyst for DMHHS, Jessica Smith, told attendees that the sweep will happen Thursday regardless of weather conditions.
Alexandra Bradley, mobile services manager at the nonprofit HIPS, was present at that meeting and says several community organizations were invited to speak on their outreach services to K Street NE unhoused residents.
“It felt like they were trying to pass things off to other people,” Bradley says, adding that the city reiterated on Tuesday that the sweep was about health and safety. “Whose safety?” Bradley asks. She says residents were given the opportunity to express their concerns, with many saying that two weeks notice wasn’t enough time. The signs first appeared on Friday, Jan. 3.
“They’re not offering any accelerated housing resources for folks that they’re displacing,” Bradley says. “They’re not offering any solutions. They’re not even offering to move people. They’re just saying, ‘You need to be gone.'”
The upcoming sweep has created urgency within advocacy groups as they race to provide outreach and services to encamped residents. Volunteers with the Peace House DC are helping people move to nearby underpasses on Wednesday night. According to co-manager of the Peace House DC Fariha Huriya, the organization has been providing the encamped residents with supplies for a long time, but last week, Huriya launched a fundraiser to help people purchase tents, thermal underwear, candles, gloves, and more for encamped individuals, raising over $5,000.
Groups like HIPS also headed out on Wednesday afternoon to help people move. Bradley and two other HIPS volunteers helped Campbell pack his and his girlfriend’s personal belongings in bags and move them to the L Street NE encampment, where he’ll set up his tent. Volunteers had plans to move four people total on Wednesday and would help others on Thursday.
Campbell managed to secure a spot at another NoMa encampment, but it’s unclear how many others were able to move to L and M streets NE as there’s limited space. For that, Campbell is thankful. He’s also grateful for the support he’s received so far from organizations like HIPS and from encamped residents elsewhere. Anthony, of L Street, helped move Campbell’s belongings by cart. He says Campbell and his girlfriend are the only K Street encampment residents to move to L Street.
“The positive thing about it is I looked [at] everybody’s faces last night and even to this morning—I am surprised to see no one in tears. No one’s panicking. No one is freaking out,” says Campbell. “Everybody’s like ‘Hey, I have a couple spots over here,’ [and] ‘Here’s a good spot,’ [and] ‘You need pilots’… Everybody’s moving as one.”
Members of Unity Baptist Church were passing out sandwiches Wednesday afternoon, and an employee of the Department of Human Services was checking on encamped residents and handing out trash bags.
On the final clean-up of the encampment on Thursday, the Washington Legal Clinic will also be present, as it has been for every other engagement protocol. According to attorney Ann Staudenmaier this is to ensure the city is following its own rules for clean-ups at encampments, although the group has new concerns about how the city has updated those rules.
The city’s encampment protocol was updated in December to clarify that officials are prohibited from disposing of personal items, such as IDs, medication, photographs, bikes, and functional tents only “when they are in plain sight,” and prohibits officials from going through belongings to identify these items.
DMHHS says this change was just meant to clarify existing practices, but Staudenmaier says this policy is unrealistic as this means people have to place these items in clear containers and run the risk of having these items thrown out if they’re not present during a clean-up. Many of these items are irreplaceable, she says.
Many are also unsure about what will happen after Thursday: How will the new policy be enforced? DMHHS did not respond to questions on enforcement by press time.
“[O]ur concern is that if people return to K Street, the city will feel emboldened to immediately throw away anything they find there without warning, even though to do so would violate the 4th and 5th Amendments to the Constitution,” Staudenmaier says.
Meanwhile, in an email obtained by City Paper, DMHHS told NoMa resident Aaron Huertas, who had written to city officials with his concerns about the new policy, that its outreach workers continually visit the encampments to remind residents of shelter services. DMHHS touted its collaboration with the organization Pathways to Housing, which helps residents find permanent supportive housing.
“Safe, affordable housing is a top priority for the Mayor and in FY20, she invested $37 million dollars to continue the implementation of Homeward D.C. to make homelessness rare, brief, and non-recurring,” the email reads. It again reiterates that the encampment has caused unsafe conditions for pedestrians.
“This is creating an ongoing public safety hazard for pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists that is not abating and we’re worried someone (either a pedestrian or someone living in an encampment) will get seriously hurt very soon,” the email says.
Some, including Bradley, worry this is just the start of more permanent encampment sweeps. And these sweeps hurt feelings.
“No one invited us. We kind of just set up shop. Do we ever ask anybody? These are things that we have to ask ourselves,” says Campbell. “But at the end, just because I did that doesn’t mean I’m a criminal. And honestly, sometimes that’s how I feel—that I’m a criminal to some of these people … When you come over here just understand that we’re people who are trying to make our lives better because the system isn’t kind to us.”
Last week at a press conference, when asked about the K Street NE underpass, Mayor Muriel Bowser told reporters that living in tents isn’t permitted in the District. When asked if the city would also permanently clear adjacent NoMa encampments on L and M street NE, Bowser didn’t answer directly.
“Living in tents is not permitted in the District of Columbia,” she repeated.