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Meadow Green Courts is a vast collection of brick buildings off Minnesota Avenue SE. The structures are nondescript—brown boxes amidst grassy lawns on tree-lined streets—and the apartments inside are equally simple. But last Wednesday, on the day before Thanksgiving, three of the units inside these buildings became something a bit more remarkable: homes for homeless men.
Last week, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services had many of the tents near the underpasses around 27th Street and Virginia Avenue NW dismantled. Signs were posted in late October to notify residents of the District’s intention to “conduct a general clean-up” of the so-called Whitehurst camp by mid-November. The sweep, which involved employees from the Department of Transportation collecting trash and dismantling tents to be placed in storage, took place on Nov. 20; a fence was erected around a large portion of the main encampment by D.C. Water later that evening.
Outreach staff from the Department of Human Services were and had been on-site to offer assessments. While some of those living at the camp agreed to go into shelter, others moved their tents and remained at the camp. Another sweep of the site will reportedly take place today.
Last Wednesday, three men who had lived at the camp became the first since the November sweep to be placed in housing. They arrived with DHS representatives in a van and were walked through the leasing process by employees of E+G Group, the complex’s management company.
One of the men, Steven Aroche, said he became homeless 15 years ago and has spent the past 13 in the D.C. area. “After 2000, it’s been an inferno. It’s been hell,” he said. Aroche said he had been beaten and was in a coma for six days, and kept watch as friend went through a similar crisis. “Now I’m grateful that I’m here.”
As he listened to a lengthy explanation about his lease, an E+G Group employee asked if Aroche was OK. “Say what? Fifteen years. Of course I’m OK.”
Miguel, who said he’d been homeless for three years, fell to his knees when he entered his new one-bedroom apartment. “Make sure to wipe your feet,” he joked before saying, “I love this whole place.”
According to DHS spokeswoman Dora Taylor, the three men were assessed through the coordinated entry system, which determined the type of housing assistance they qualified for and the urgency of the need. Aroche, for example, qualified for the Local Rent Supplement Program administered by the D.C. Housing Authority. The recipient pays 30 percent of his income (from a job or a subsidy like Social Security) toward rent. In this case, Aroche will pay $219 a month and receive a $175 utility allowance.
The three men were also provided with a bed, dresser, and couch. Aroche says he’s still in need of donated cleaning supplies and other basic households goods.
The Whitehurst camp will apparently not be the last to see a sweep.
“District agencies will continue to clean encampment sites,” Deputy Mayor Brenda Donald said in a Nov. 20 email to councilmembers and officials, “and we will continue to provide residents with access to the services they need to get off the streets.”
“Over the last several months, we have helped 14 individuals from the Whitehurst site move into housing,” Donald continued. “We will provide the same intensity of resources and support to people in encampments that we provide to those living in shelter and in transitional housing, so that all individuals facing homelessness have a pathway to housing. After the encampments are cleaned up and the individuals are supported in their transition to a safer place, we will continue to monitor the sites to ensure that people who may come there in the future are connected in short order to services and shelter.”
Between Nov. 1 and Dec. 1, nine “unaccompanied individuals” from encampments were “housed throughout DHS programs,” according to Taylor.
Scott Schenkelberg, president and CEO of Miriam’s Kitchen—a nonprofit that serves the homeless located just down the street from Whitehurst encampment site—says the Bowser administration has “been amazing on prioritizing homelessness issues that need to be addressed.”
“Overall, they have been a dream in addressing this issue and have been so progressive on it,” he says. But until the city has enough permanent supportive housing, he says, “the reality is that we’re consistently going to see people outside.”
Beyond long-held concerns about shelter conditions—”Shelters are dangerous,” Miguel said before getting the keys to his apartment—advocates question whether the homeless living on the streets are being prioritized for housing ahead of those with a greater need.
Taylor said DHS had been connected with people at the Whitehurst encampment “long before this situation occurred,” and “most people had already been assessed.”
But as city agencies assesses more homeless residents for housing, they need more landlords to come forward with units. That’s happened following the intense media attention around the Whitehurst disbandment, Taylor said.
While the city sees shelters as an interim solution for homelessness—more year-round beds are scheduled to come online in January—Schenkelberg said he’s not sure there’s anything that can be done in the immediate future to improve conditions.
“The longer-term solutions are going to take time,” he says. “Until those shelters and that affordable housing is developed, there have to be some policies about being tolerant of people in public spaces.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery