James Harris squinted into the mist kicked up by power washers scrubbing the sidewalks of the M Street NE underpass on Monday morning as District officials unfurled yellow caution tape around the tents that remained standing.
“They can’t make me move,” he said, thumbing a smoldering cigarette as he sat on the curb of the nearby U.S. Justice Department offices.
“If I move now, I’m gonna lose my spot when all them,” — he paused to gesture around at the uniformed D.C. workers — “leave.”
Harris, who said he has been homeless on and off since 2009, was one of a number of individuals who lingered Monday as D.C. officials attempted to clear out the long-standing encampment — this time, they say, for good.
The encampment clear-out was the first of three planned as part of the District’s new pilot program aimed at permanently emptying homeless encampments using a “housing first” model. D.C. officials will set up unhoused individuals with apartments or hotel rooms while working to enroll them in social welfare programs and continue to assist them, according to the D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS).
By the time D.C. Public Works employees and police officers arrived at the underpass Monday morning, outreach workers promising housing vouchers and apartments to chronically homeless residents along the L and M Street underpasses had come and gone weeks ago.
The residents who took the city up on its offer received keys to their new apartments last month, city officials said. Neon orange traffic drums stood in neatly arranged rectangles where tents used to be, checkering the sidewalk that for years was packed tightly with tents. The District has cleared the area before to clean the space, but the tents always returned.
Future encampments will be banned in the area, and homeless outreach workers will engage any newcomers to get them off the street as quickly as they arrive, said Wayne Turnage, the District’s deputy mayor for human services. DHS officials said they would not make arrests if future tents appear in the area but instead would refer the matter to social services. After nightfall Monday, there were a few tents remaining on M Street and more than a dozen still on L Street.
As of Monday afternoon, DHS officials said, of the roughly 60 or so people who were living along the underpass when outreach efforts began over the summer, 22 people have signed leases and moved into apartments. Eight others will move into new residences this week, while seven were transferred to hotel rooms within the last several days.
Nine residents of the encampment in Northeast left without engaging in the city’s pilot program, Turnage said. Several who refused to participate in the program remained, though Turnage added that city workers will “continue to engage with them to see if they can explain to us why they prefer to live on the street rather than go into an apartment.”
One such resident, known by the community as Mama J, said she has lived on L Street for more than nine years. She picked the spot, she said, because the old bus station stayed open all night, giving her easy access to a bathroom when she needed one. But the bus depot vanished in 2012, relocating to Union Station.
The tents started to appear in 2016, she said, and the encampment grew each year. On Monday, she sat in a blue lawn chair burning candles in honor of St. Clare, founder of the Order of Poor Ladies, and St. Anthony, patron saint of the lost, as she watched the encampment disappear.
“I don’t think people should be punished for your existence,” she said.
Mama J, who is a senior citizen but declined to specify her age or provide her full name, doesn’t trust the government. She said she’s been warned by the divine to avoid government-backed programs.
“They say if you take the place, you’ll have a bathroom, you’ll have a kitchen,” she said. “They sound like the devil telling Jesus if you bow down to me you can have anything you want.”
Volunteers with Ward 6 Mutual Aid and People for Fairness Coalition, who were on-site to help residents bag up and move their belongings, described the process of clearing the space as “chaotic” and “disorganized.”
Some unhoused residents wondered aloud where their caseworkers had gone. One was sent to the hospital Monday after a bulldozer operator started to clear a tent on L Street NE, then realized a man was still inside.
Onlookers said the man was hit by the machine, but District officials disputed this.
Turnage said the tent had been checked “two or three times” by District workers and contractors hired to aid in the encampment clearing, but somehow the man escaped notice. When the operator of the bulldozer noticed he was inside, the work “stopped immediately,” Turnage added.
The man’s condition was not immediately known.
Reginald Black, executive director of the homeless advocacy and outreach with the People for Fairness Coalition, who was himself homeless for a decade, said he was “very disappointed” with how Monday’s effort was handled.
“They’ve had weeks and weeks to get this together,” he said. “Why are there still people out here who don’t know where they’re going?”
Turnage said several homeless individuals had flocked to the underpass in recent weeks after hearing residents there were receiving priority for housing and services as part of the pilot program.
Some officials, including members of the D.C. Council, have criticized the program for giving unfair priority to people living on the street — and creating an incentive to do so — while other individuals and families languish on lengthy waitlists.
Turnage pointed to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic as giving the District a sense of urgency in moving people off the street. He said though D.C. tracks coronavirus vaccination rates among homeless individuals in shelters, less is known about those living outside.
“We have seen a growing number of people living on the streets, in encampments, in conditions that raise concerns,” he said. “You end up with a potential public health problem, issues around safety. One of the thing that encampments unfortunately attract to the detriment of those who want to live peacefully are people who may not even be homeless who come to prey on them, and they create tremendous concern for those who live in the encampments and those who live in the community as well.”
Underpasses in the area have been cleared and cleaned nearly 100 times in recent years, though only K Street was previously shut down permanently. That closure, in January of last year, pushed several people into the area along L and M Streets.
Efforts are already underway to continue enrollment in the pilot by signing up homeless residents at an encampment on New Jersey Avenue and O Street NW and at another between 20th and 21st Streets, along E Street NW.
A previous version of this article misidentified the park at New Jersey Avenue and O Street NW. This article has been updated.