Tents under at a homeless encampment under a bridge in NoMa
Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The District’s clearing of a NoMa homeless encampment at L Street NE was halted yesterday after a small bulldozer picked up a tent with a man inside. A video taken by WTOP reporter Mike Murillo shows the tense moments as onlookers and advocates attempt to get the man out of the tangled fabric. 

Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Wayne Turnage said in a statement the resident had “no visible injuries” when authorities attended to him at the scene, but he was taken to a hospital as a precaution. Turnage added in the statement that his staff did not see the man before they began to clear his tent. He said the cleanup will resume today.

The incident adds further skepticism to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s efforts to clear homeless encampments throughout the city. Additional encampments are being removed from E Street NW at 20th and 21st streets NW and a park at New Jersey Avenue NW and O Street NW. One person died at the O Street NW park location Monday night after a tent caught fire. Jesse Rabinowitz, an advocate for unhoused people with Miriam’s Kitchen, says the incident on L Street NE was “both predictable and preventable.” 

“That somebody was nearly bulldozed underscores the sad reality that, in D.C., the lives of unhoused people, especially unhoused Black and brown people, are often considered disposable to those in power,” he says.

Removal of homeless encampments is part of a pilot program meant to prioritize “housing first” by providing the longtime residents of the L and M Street NE encampment, about 43 people, with housing. The program is also designed to connect people to social welfare programs. Turnage says 22 participants have signed leases and another eight will receive housing in the coming days. He told WTOP they have an apartment lined up for the man lifted by the bulldozer.

Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau said in a Twitter thread she continues to have concerns about the pilot program.

“If the resident had not been able to communicate their presence, they could have died,” she wrote. ”We are literally talking about life and death when working with encampments.”

Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, whose ward includes this encampment, said in a statement he supports getting residents off the streets but calls Monday’s outcome “completely unacceptable.” 

“​The team responsible needs to understand what happened and how we can humanely make this transition. We have the funds set aside to end homelessness for many, many people,” he says. “Our unhoused neighbors deserved better than what happened today.”

Now the next phase of the plan is blocking residents from continuing to camp in the recently cleared areas. Rabinowitz tweeted he heard a city employee discuss how to place concrete road dividers strategically so there’s no “room to sleep.”

Rabinowitz is grateful to see these residents get new housing—but he says creating a no-tent zone is criminalizing homelessness.

“Criminalizing homelessness isn’t just arresting people experiencing homelessness, although that happens frequently,” he says. “It can look like a District bulldozer almost throwing you and your tent into the trash.”

Bailey Vogt (tips? bvogt@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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