Ten days after a pro-Trump riot at the U.S. Capitol left at least five people dead, Shannon Clark headed out with her partner to distribute loaded Metro cards to unhoused people in downtown D.C.
It was an eerily quiet Saturday morning. The streets surrounding the White House, National Mall, and U.S. Capitol were entirely closed and devoid of people, precautions the city is taking following the insurrection and in preparation for the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden. Members of the Secret Service and the National Guard milled around fences set up at each intersection and, at one point, Clark heard Capitol police testing out loudspeakers near Union Station.
Clark is one of the people behind Remora House, a mutual aid group that provides supplies to unhoused people in D.C. On Saturday, Clark and her partner moved throughout D.C., and handed out nearly 50 Metro cards to people near NoMa, Union Station, and McPherson Square. Each card had at least $10 on it. They also gave out information on legal rights, the potential for a curfew should there be violence, Metro closures leading up to the inauguration, shelter information, and numbers to call if they needed help.
By the time Clark and her partner made it to McPherson Square on Saturday afternoon, it was clear how much the riot and subsequent response had indirectly harmed those experiencing homelessness in downtown D.C. Some people had left their usual spots, others were stressed about more violence, and many had had their regular services interrupted.
“A lot of outreach services for safety reasons are not doing their outreach right now,” Clark says. “One of the people out here in McPherson hasn’t eaten in two days.”
Despite these interruptions, community outreach organizations along with D.C.’s Department of Human Services have been working to provide aid to clients since Jan. 6, albeit under unusual circumstances.
That morning, knowing Trump supporters were expected downtown, social services organization Pathways to Housing sent its outreach team out to check in with clients. Ceymone Dyce, director of homeless services, was concerned, especially with a pandemic raging and knowing many pro-Trump ralliers had rejected masks.
“I’m worried really because folks, especially in the downtown area, are literally walking through people’s living rooms,” she told City Paper hours before the demonstrators would march to the U.S. Capitol and violently enter.
On top of the pandemic making it difficult for unhoused people to wash their hands or seek shelter from unmasked people, road closures made it difficult for outreach specialists to reach them. Pathways to Housing says it had been working with DHS leading up to planned demonstrations on Jan. 6, relocating people from downtown D.C. to shelters and other areas of the city. In November and December, earlier pro-Trump demonstrations had turned violent: multiple people were stabbed and a group of Proud Boys burned a Black Lives Matter banner belonging to a historic Black church.
But on Jan. 6, violence progressed far beyond what had been seen before. For safety and ahead of a 6 p.m. curfew, outreach teams sent out by Pathways were pulled back. They were back out the next day, providing case management to clients and connecting them to available services. Speaking a few days after the riot, Dyce says outreach workers were exhausted and “really just trying to keep ourselves in the best spirits in order to advocate for our clients.”
“This week, in general, especially highlights the fact of the necessity of access and availability to health care and housing for folks,” she adds.
Remora House had also been on the ground leading up to Jan. 6, following reports that an encampment in McPherson Square had been cleared the night before in preparation for demonstrators. Clark also says they were handing out supplies and advising people to be aware of potential violence.
Speaking on the Friday after the riot, Clark says she got reports from friends and through social media of pro-Trump rioters mocking and heckling unhoused people. One particularly unsettling threat she heard of was rioters threatening to burn tents down. A friend of hers who later checked in with an encampment reported back to Clark that they saw “concerning burn marks” on the outside of a tent.
As D.C. reeled in the aftermath of the riot and headed toward the inauguration, security mounted. Fences went up in the blocks around the Capitol and the White House, National Guardsmen filled the streets, and Metro stations closed. In turn, crucial services for unhoused people were interrupted. The Downtown Day Services Center, operated by the DowntownDC BID, closed for three days leading up to the inauguration and weekend meal services were relocated. Bread for the City announced it would close through the inauguration and Miriam’s Kitchen also announced it would suspend some of its meal and bathroom services. Emergency shelters and two drop-in centers remain open on Inauguration Day.
At one point over the weekend, an inauguration rehearsal was briefly evacuated after a homeless tent beneath the nearby freeway burst into flames. The occupant said she was using propane and was injured, but declined transport to the hospital, D.C. Fire & EMS says.
On Sunday, the DowntownDC BID handed out 500 emergency 3-day meal boxes to hold people over in the meantime. DowntownDC CEO and President Neil Albert tells City Paper the day services center will reopen after the inauguration, but in the meantime, outreach workers will be on the lookout for unhoused residents who need food and shelter, as well as providing information on closures, security and available resources.
“We have focused on getting our clients outside of the secure area,” which encompasses the day services center, he says. “We have encouraged people to take advantage of hotels. There are three to four hotels the city has made available.” DHS was unavailable to comment on if it has made hotels available and how many people have been relocated.
Pathways to Housing’s Colleen Cosgriff was one case manager supervisor out providing services over the weekend. She says it was difficult for outreach workers to visit clients due to roads and the Metro being closed. Many had to park their cars blocks up from clients and move on foot. On top of the pandemic and the riots, there’s also another concern: Cold temperatures. Unhoused people are guaranteed shelter during hypothermia alerts in D.C., and outreach workers are especially mindful of the dropping temperatures.
“Just a few weeks ago, one of our staff on evening rounds was able to help someone get to the hospital, someone who was outside. They were suffering from hypothermia, and they were at risk of losing their hand,” Cosgriff says. “We are doing our best.”
According to Dyce, Pathways to Housing is continuing to work closely with city partners. She calls it an “energy-pumping” time, as they work quickly to relocate people and offer to safely store items.
But while Dyce says some people have gone to different shelters around the city, not everyone has fully left downtown. Cosgriff says that a shelter may not always be preferable for someone, particularly as COVID-19 has been shown to spread in congregate settings.
And unhoused residents are stressed, say outreach workers. The presence of rioters and now enhanced security has been distressing. Pathways to Housing says it would normally connect reporters with their clients to allow them to discuss their situations in their own voices, but the stress of the past two weeks and difficulty reaching clients doesn’t make it feasible. The organization also says it needs people who can stay home to shelter in place so outreach organizations can more easily access secure spaces.
“A lot of our clients have complex mental health challenges. A lot of our clients are people of color,” says Cosgriff. “[Rioters] are coming into the city carrying Confederate flags.” She adds that there’s also an information gap for many unhoused people, who cannot simply turn on the television or check Twitter to find out where demonstrations are happening or how security may impact them. The uncertainty is adding up for many people, Cosgriff says.
Clark, who calls Remora House an “unhoused emergency response team,” says she will continue to monitor the situation downtown. But she also says the attempts by her and other mutual aid groups, which include raising money for temporary housing and providing supplies, aren’t sufficient enough. If anything, she says, they’re piecemeal.
“Mayor Bowser has the resources, the manpower and the facilities to house all homeless people in D.C. and get them out of harm’s way. And yet, [the city’s] choosing not to,” she says. Instead, she says, people like her and other mutual aid groups are coming out into a “dangerous and volatile situation to try keep people safe because of a lack of action on the part of the city.”
Pathways to Housing also says the events of the past two weeks only further highlight the need for permanent housing, which not only get people out of unsafe conditions, but also provide them the space to process the traumatic events of the last few weeks.
“When officials say, stay away from downtown, watch the inauguration inside your house, that isn’t possible without housing,” Cosgriff says. “Clients are out there witnessing all these things and experiencing all these things.”