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Last Tuesday wooden planters appeared in front of the Safeway at Corcoran and 17th streets NW, just after a temporary homeless encampment eviction had taken place. Some Ward 2 residents expressed dismay over what they saw as an oppressive play to keep unhoused people from moving back after the scheduled “engagement.” An “engagement” is when the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services (DMHHS) clears out an encampment to assess the area, during which folks have to pack their belongings and relocate until the full “clean-up” is over. Two days later, the planters were gone. Then, the following day, the planters were back—as more permanent, inanimate residents, their frames epoxy-glued to the sidewalk.

What happened with the planters outside Safeway last week? 

When ANC Commissioner Robin Nunn heard about the planters from fellow residents on Tuesday, she got on the case. First, she called DMHHS, which manages the homeless encampment clean-ups on D.C. land. (The encampments known as Burke Park and Gompers Park, which are on federal land and thus managed by the National Park Service, are even more complex to navigate.) The highlighter-yellow caution tape surrounding the planters threw Nunn off; it looked official, and for a moment she thought the DMHHS encampment policy might have changed to allow the otherwise illegal dumping on public space. But DMHHS staff told her they were not involved with, nor knew of, the incident. Their full clean-up was “engagement” as usual: two weeks’ notice to unhoused folks about the clean-up, and no barriers from its office for unhoused folks to return to the public space afterward. If the local government wasn’t involved, Nunn suspected that a group of vigilantes were.

Just in case, Nunn hit up Safeway. Since this Safeway branch was in her single member district, she knew the supermarket chain’s district manager and went straight to leadership to ask about the incident. A talk with the community department staff there turned up nothing. Nunn next visited the Safeway in person and spoke to the store manager—bingo. 

The Safeway manager told Nunn she started her job Monday and didn’t know she needed a permit to put out planters. She just saw an opportunity to beautify the cleared area after the unhoused left for the temporary eviction, and rallied store employees to lug the items out to the storefront. When Nunn explained the permitting rules, the store manager just shrugged her shoulders and said she was trying to keep the homeless people away, according to Nunn. She says the manager felt that it was a public health problem to have unhoused people sleeping in front of the store, and thought the planters would help keep the area safe.  

The precise timeline gets fuzzy, but according to various Twitter accounts and Nunn’s recollection based on resident reports, the planters stayed in place Tuesday and Wednesday, when ANC commissioner Michael Scott McKernan of ANC 2B07 reported the illegal dumping issue to 311 via Twitter. The planters then disappeared sometime on Thursday just as mysteriously as they had appeared. They were then replaced on Friday, and Alex Lopez of ANC 6E02 reported the issue to 311 again.

On Friday, Remora House DC and other unhoused residents rights advocates tweeted about a GoFundMe page that was started that day to raise money as part of a campaign to “[h]elp keep our Safeway [s]afe.” The fundraiser’s description cited littering, noise, and alcohol and drug use in the encampment as public safety concerns. 

Some residents disagree with who is really unsafe. Lara Chausow, one of many residents who expressed dismay to local officials, wrote in an email addressed to Robin Nunn, ANC 2B08 Matthew Holden, and Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto

“The unabated harassment of our unhoused neighbors by those living around them is appalling and needs to stop. It is bad enough to listen to them monopolize ANC meetings where they express far more concern for their property value than the lives of others—and where those without reliable internet access can’t attend. But for them to repeatedly deprive people of a place to live and their belongings is too far.” 

Chausow and others called for these officials to reach out to the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and ask the department to deny any permits for these planters or other “hostile architecture.” 

This isn’t the first time the area was under fire for alleged discrimination against unhoused residents, including many of the same unhoused folks. In June, a small encampment was almost cleared out to allegedly make space for café streatery seating for Zeleno in Dupont Circle. In that case, Robin Nunn sent DDOT a letter requesting that the department  deny the permit on the grounds that it would displace unhoused people living on Connecticut Avenue NW. DDOT initially rejected the request but ultimately, after a month-long advocacy process that later involved a board in the mayor’s office, revoked the permit for those tables and chairs at the encampment site. The permit would have facilitated a full clean-up to remove encampment tents, but the clean-up was changed to a trash-only one. 

Nunn points to that café situation as yet another example of housed residents machinating around protocols to get rid of folks they see as a nuisance. Bill McLeod, executive director of Dupont Circle Main Streets, whose mission is “to promote and plan the improvements of the cultural, physical, and economic qualities of Dupont Circle,” per its website, had listed Zeleno as the primary beneficiary for the temporary seating permit. But Nunn claims the owner admitted it wasn’t the their idea and was a guise to displace folks, which McLeod has denied. 

In the case of the no-longer-mysterious planters, there was no permit involved, making the dumping illegal. The planters were temporarily successful because they were planned around a previously scheduled clean-up—not a trash pick-up that many unhoused residents welcome. It was an “engagement,” which advocates like Jesse Rabinowitz of Miriam’s Kitchen point out don’t align with the CDC guidance that “[i]f individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are” to prevent increasing the risk of COVID-19 infections. These temporary evictions should only happen when a camp poses a public health risk. But advocates suspect that some wealthy residents in the area make “public safety” calls to DMHHS against the majority-Black folks experiencing homelessness. 

“I do think some of this is racism,” Nunn told City Paper, acknowledging her own struggles as a Black woman residing in Dupont Circle. “The public people that were living there… were predominantly Black or Brown, and, you know, this is not a Black or Brown neighborhood … If it was a family of White, you know, blue-eyed blondes that were living in front of Safeway, I think they’d be treated differently.”

“We just have to be honest—this is racism, this is gentrification and displacement,” Rabinowitz told City Paper. “And to know that people are celebrating these barriers … celebrating displacement, brings me to tears. There have been people who have been experiencing homelessness in that spot before I came here. And so instead of harassing them … I kind of thought we were on the same page that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.”

The advocate explained that “terrorizing” unhoused residents only prolongs the time it takes for them to find housing and the support services they need. The disruptions these residents face every time an “engagement” takes place eats up valuable time and energy they could have invested in seeking stability, particularly during the pandemic, he added. 

Ward 2 residents and advocates, including ANCs, took to Twitter and email to hold themselves, each other, and Councilmember Pinto accountable to deter future acts of harassment against residents experiencing homelessness. For now, some residents are taking matters into their own hands: On Friday, folks removed the planters for what they hoped will be the last time.

The “Help keep our Safeway Safe” campaign, which had raised funds ranging from $5 to $50 from 11 donors, half of whom are anonymous, is no longer accepting donations, despite its $305 total raised falling rather short of its $2,000 goal. Neither the Safeway store manager nor the person who started the GoFundMe responded to City Paper requests for comment in time for this publication. 

Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

Save the date! Washington City Paper is hosting a big bash at 3 Stars Brewing Company on Wednesday, Aug. 18 to cap off this year’s Best of D.C. readers’ poll. Attendees will get a sneak preview of the 2021 Best of D.C. finalists as well as access to swag, lots of beer, and tons of fun! Register for free here.

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This article was first published as a newsletter. This post has been updated to correctly spell Robin Nunn’s name.