“Used and bloody hypodermic needles and other drug paraphernalia, rotting food, trash, broken glass, public nudity, prostitution, sales of illegal drugs, and human urine and feces are encountered by those whose routes take them by the encampments and pervade the space in which encamped individuals are living,” Jasper wrote.
The NoMa Business Improvement District, created by the D.C. Council in 2007, is funded by grants and a tax assessment on properties in a 35-block area roughly west and north of Union Station. Railroad tracks cut through the eastern part of NoMa, creating underpasses in the neighborhood from H Street to Florida Avenue in Northeast Washington.
Advocates for the homeless condemned Jasper’s letter, which was dated Aug. 21.
Aaron Howe, a PhD candidate in American University’s anthropology program who has interviewed people in the encampments, said while the letter raised some good points, its tone was “very dehumanizing.”
“It just treated them more as an annoyance than as actual human beings,” he said. “It seems like a fear campaign — a way to increase citizens’ complaining.”
In a statement, Patty Mullahy Fugere, executive director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said the letter addressed important issues but “discounts the underlying cause of the problem, which is the District’s affordable-housing crisis — a crisis that in great measure has been fueled by redevelopment of neighborhoods like NoMa.”
Jasper said in an interview that she was “overwhelmed” by the response to the letter, which she said has been “mostly supportive.” She said advocates are more focused on encampment residents than safety in public spaces.
“More outreach and more housing just won’t solve the issue,” she said. “There’s a genuine public interest in people being able to get through the neighborhood safely.”
Drew Courtney, an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner who represents the area, said one of his constituents was spat on in an underpass amid a spike in aggressive panhandling and sexual harassment. He called the situation “unsustainable.”
“I think it’s complicated,” Courtney said. “I think the District needs to make sure that we’re providing real support for folks that are dealing with crises of housing and substance abuse and mental health, and … we need to be able to guarantee safety when folks walk through these spaces.”
In her letter, Jasper wrote that public dialogue around solutions to homelessness often centers on affordable housing, even though improved drug rehabilitation, more mental-health programs and better enforcement of drug laws would be more effective tools.
Brian Carome, executive director of Street Sense Media, a nonprofit that publishes a newspaper focused on poverty that is sold by the city’s homeless, said ending homelessness requires a commitment to building more affordable housing.
“The men and women in these encampments are more often victims than victimizers,” he said. “This is a cold, callous letter.”
Not all business improvement districts in the city handle homeless outreach in the same way.
The Golden Triangle Business Improvement District, which serves 43 square blocks roughly from Dupont Circle to Pennsylvania Avenue, has a $250,000 annual contract with Pathways to Housing DC — a nonprofit that advocates for ending homelessness — for three full-time outreach workers.
The NoMa BID is a Pathways donor, but homeless outreach is handled by its own “hospitality ambassadors,” Jasper said.
“I sense the frustration of people living in a community together,” said Christy Respress, Pathways’ executive director. “By the time someone is living on the street, they’re desperate. They have no other option. They aren’t choosing to live on the street.”
Carome said the NoMa BID could do more to help those living in encampments, such as building permanent restrooms, wider sidewalks and a mental health clinic.
Jasper said addressing problems in encampments are “not our thing at all, financially.” She said the BID pays to pressure-wash streets after the city clears encampments every two weeks but can’t address public safety issues handled by police.
The District defines an encampment as “a set-up of an abode or place of residence of one or more persons on public property or an accumulation of personal belongings that is present even when the individual may not be.” Once an encampment is identified, the city deploys outreach teams and eventually removes its inhabitants.
Despite the regular cleanups — which have increased citywide, from 29 in 2015 to 100 in 2018 — Jasper said more people seem to be living in the NoMa encampments.
D.C. police statistics show the immediate area has seen a recent increase in crime. The number of violent crimes — such as robbery and assault with a dangerous weapon — within 1,000 feet of First and K streets NE has increased in the past year, from nine to 15. Property crimes increased from 108 to 136.
In NoMa, some tents sit on concrete, sporting the names of their owners. Others rest on wooden pallets so residents can avoid getting wet when it rains. The noise of cars and trains is constant, as is the threat of mosquitoes and rodents.
On Wednesday, many living in the encampments were unaware of the BID’s letter.
Standing in the L Street underpass beneath elaborate light sculptures installed as part of a $2 million grant, 58-year-old Michael Zanders said a friend suggested he move there after finding him sleeping on a park bench. Zanders said a home would help him conquer his drug addiction.
“I think housing will be a positive step,” he said. “It gets me stable. I’m not stable here.”
Cowanda Gresham, a 41-year-old Washington native, has been homeless for five years, living in a tent beneath an underpass for seven months. She stakes out her spot to maintain contact with case managers trying to get her a housing voucher.
She said she spends some of the money she makes panhandling on bleach and cleaning spray to keep her few square feet of public space spotless.
“I have a broom. I clean up faithfully,” she said. “All I can do is hope someone comes and lifts me.”