E Street NW between 20th and 21st streets.
E Street NW between 20th and 21st streets. Credit: Andrew Giambrone

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Within four hours, the tents were gone.

The last to come down was the largest. Covered in blue tarp that city workers removed and folded, it sheltered homeless residents living beneath it from heat and rain. The structure of the tent itself—four beams that held up an expandable awning—was thrown into the maw of an orange dump truck. It was taken out before the truck crushed up several large items and drove away with another truck beside it.

As this scene unfolded yesterday behind yellow police tape, passersby paused and watched, captivated by what was going on outside their places of work, or while they were on their way to grab coffee or lunch. The temperature was unusually warm for fall in the nation’s capital, serving as little indication that for official city purposes hypothermia season had begun a day earlier, on Nov. 1.

Across the street, bystanders came in and out of the former Red Cross headquarters building, now occupied by the U.S. State Department, to see the commotion. An engraving above the building’s front entrance reads: “I AM WITH THE WOUNDED”.

Credit: Andrew Giambrone

It took nearly a dozen D.C. police officers, outreach specialists, and other workers to disband this homeless encampment above the E Street Expressway in Foggy Bottom, temporarily displacing between 10 and 15 people who’d set up there over the past few months. The cleanup was part of an active effort to ensure residents’ life, health, and safety, Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s administration says. That effort includes connecting the homeless who stay on the streets to shelter and other housing options.

But most of the encampment’s residents remained in the area following Thursday’s cleanup. Sean Barry, a spokesman for the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, says none agreed to enter shelter, although, he noted, that could change based on future outreach work. Several of the residents chose to store some of their items with the District, as is offered, Barry added.

The majority, however, relocated their belongings half a block down to 21st and E streets NW. Among the things that ended up along the sidewalk were containers, bags, a mattress, a small barbecue grill, clothes, a leather chair, and a multicolor umbrella.

Credit: Andrew Giambrone

Encampment residents said they would rather be outside than in the District’s shelters, which they described as unwelcoming, potentially unsafe, and lacking in privacy. A man named Mike, who declined to give his last name, said the group had taken to calling their community of 12 tents “Tiny Tent Town” or “Triple T.” The encampment grew through word of mouth, Mike explained.

Before staying in Foggy Bottom, he said, he and his girlfriend lived under a bridge near Union Station. The District conducted a cleanup at that site too, said Mike, who on Thursday was wearing a Thomas the Tank Engine pom-pom hat, a checkered blue-and-brown flannel shirt, and jeans. “It’s irritating,” he said. “I work. I pay taxes. I’m a regular person like the rest of these people.”

Mike said he does a series of odd jobs, including setting up for music shows and mentoring kids. He said he is also a certified chef, grew up in the District, and attended D.C. Public Schools. “I’m all the tricks of the trade,” he said, noting that some of the encampment residents had to take off work so that they could be present for the cleanup. Triple T has 14 residents, Mike said.

“I got my birth certificate, Social Security card, business attire, food—stuff like you have in a normal apartment,” he said when asked about what he keeps with him. “That’s our living arrangement right now.” Nearby students and workers help, he added.

Credit: Andrew Giambrone

The District has a rare right-to-shelter law that allows people to access shelter during hypothermia conditions. It has performed year-round shelter placements since Bowser’s first year as mayor. Last January, the District and its partners counted more than 7,400 homeless people, which was a 10.5 percent decline from 2016’s count. But the number of unsheltered homeless singles nearly tripled over that period, from 318 to 897 individuals. Officials in part attributed this jump to “unseasonably warm weather.”

Thursday was not the first time the District has dismantled a homeless encampment. And it’s happened before in Foggy Bottom.

Barry, the DMHHS spokesman, says the District provided the encampment residents 14-days notice before the cleanup and a follow-up notice Thursday morning. He says cleanups tend to happen on Tuesdays and Thursdays and aren’t complaint-driven.

Credit: Andrew Giambrone

“It’s illegal to camp long-term in the District,” says Barry, who shared D.C.’s written policy on encampments. “More importantly, it is not a sustainable housing option in what always becomes an unsanitary and unsafe situation. Others frequent these spaces.”

Barry adds that the District’s ultimate goal is to find long-term housing and supportive-services solutions for the homeless. He says city workers would only return to the site for an additional sweep next Tuesday if the residents’ belongings remain on the same corner to which they were relocated, and if they are not claimed.

“The encampment-response process is ongoing and there are no plans for changes to the calendar or the frequency of those responses,” he said, noting that outreach continues.

For Mike, though, the cleanups feel like “a fight with the city.”

“They just came to the street like we was nothing,” he says, calling for permanent housing. (The District has housing voucher programs, but its resources are limited.) “This is what we’d rather do.”

“We found a way to survive without having to live like they say we have to live,” Mike sighs. “We keep it clean. They say it’s dirty.”