The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Days after a D.C. encampment is cleared, some homeless are choosing the streets over shelters

Homeless residents live in tents in the L Street NE tunnel. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

In another setting — one far removed from poverty, the rattle of trains in and out of Union Station and the whoop of emergency vehicle sirens — Charles Leon Willie and Kara Chauncey’s tent in a District homeless encampment might be almost cozy.

The married couple can snuggle beneath sleeping bags for warmth or, for more heat, light a makeshift fire nearby. But beneath an underpass in the 100 block of L Street NE, residents worry about violence, thefts and forced encampment cleanups.

They still say it’s better than a shelter.

One week after city crews closed an encampment at the K Street NE underpass in the NoMa neighborhood, the street’s sidewalks are mostly free of the tents and inhabitants that were the source of complaints. District officials say they tried to connect its occupants with city services and shelter beds, although it’s not known how many residents moved into such facilities.

D.C. clears longtime homeless encampment near Union Station

The city isn’t tracking the living arrangements of those who were residing along K Street.

Willie, who lived at a homeless shelter for more than four years before moving to the nearby L Street underpass, said he can duck out of his tent to ride a skateboard while Chauncey panhandles outside a Dunkin’. Both are aware that shelter beds are available to them but cite security concerns, their inconvenient locations and strict rules. The streets are more appealing.

“It really is worse than jail,” Chauncey said. “Nobody wants to live out on the streets, but some of the options as opposed to being on the streets aren’t worth it.”

When city officials cleared the K Street encampment amid a rancorous debate about gentrification and the rights of the homeless, they said no one need be left in the cold.

“There is a bed available to everyone on the street experiencing homelessness,” Wayne Turnage, the city’s deputy mayor for health and human services, said at the time. “If we can get people to come into the system, we feel we can accommodate them.”

Kristy Greenwalt, director of the D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness, said the city is working to improve conditions at shelters designed for individuals after first focusing on shelters designed for families.

No room on the street: D.C. orders homeless out of underpass in fast-developing neighborhood

For example, she said, the city is planning a new facility to replace a shelter on the grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast, where a man died after being beaten last year, and has spent more than $2 million hiring additional case managers.

“We’ve been trying to get folks to give it another shot,” she said.

This past week, a sign at the K Street underpass warned that property blocking the sidewalk could be removed and, save for one tent, the underpass was clear.

As a phalanx of city officials, police and maintenance crews forced residents from the underpass on Jan. 16 before power-washing the sidewalks, some staked out spots under the L and M street underpasses. Others, surprised by or unprepared for the cleanup, looked elsewhere.

When the city activates a hypothermia alert, generally when forecasters predict temperatures below freezing, shelters are open around the clock, and officials say there is a bed for anyone who wants it. The day of the recent K Street cleanup — when a hypothermia alert was in place — plenty of shelter space was available, records show.

A census of beds for that day from the nonprofit Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, which manages the homeless programs of the D.C. Department of Human Services, shows the District had 1,949 beds available, 430 of which were vacant. Records show hundreds of beds were available each night between Jan. 16 and Jan. 22.

“There’s shelter space,” said Tom Fredericksen, chief of policy and programs for Community Partnership. “It was really cold most of those nights, and we had several hundred vacancies.”

Empty beds show that supply exceeds demand — and that beds will stay empty if homeless people won’t use them.

An annual count conducted in January 2019 showed 6,521 people in the city were homeless at the time. That figure has been cited by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) as proof that the number of homeless people in the District has declined more than 21 percent since 2016.

The latest count was conducted Wednesday night, although numbers aren’t yet available.

The hidden homeless: Not guys sleeping in tents but kids sleeping on buses and floors

Joseph J. Mettimano, chief executive of Central Union Mission, a nonprofit that operates an emergency men’s shelter, said some clients “simply won’t go” to shelters — kept away by claustrophobia or fear of others that might be connected to mental illness, among a host of other issues. Like other advocates, he said the remedy for homelessness is affordable housing — a commodity in short supply in the District.

“There’s not a lot of recourse, oftentimes, in what organizations like mine can do if someone just refuses to go to the shelters,” Mettimano said. “People won’t comply.” 

Nechama Masliansky, senior advocacy adviser for So Others Might Eat, another D.C.-based outreach organization, said people can “sometimes be very rational” in their decision to stay on the street. A homeless person camped out downtown who is offered a ride to a shelter elsewhere in the city might choose to stay put because of the inconvenience of moving.

“Everyone is a creature of habit,” Masliansky said. “Their services are downtown. Their friends are downtown. Their meals are downtown.”

Mike Harris, a former K Street underpass resident who recently moved to L Street, said he’s having trouble settling in one block away. Some longtime L Street occupants haven’t taken kindly to the new neighbors, he said.

“They are hating, antagonistic,” he said. “But I’m on God’s plan for God’s purpose for God’s people.”

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Chauncey and Willie, who are from Virginia, are waiting to secure their District identification and plan to seek housing vouchers. In the meantime, they prefer the underpass — even if it means no bathroom access and bundling up in the winter temperatures.

“Two people cannot have a life in a locker,” Willie said of shelters. “There’s not enough room.”

Aaron Bernier-Garland has lived beneath the L Street underpass for more than a month, maintaining a giveaway table where neighbors collect freebies from advocates, such as water bottles and winter clothing. He recently stepped out of his tent to feed his puppy, Buttercup.

There was no way she could go to a shelter, he said, so there was no way he could, either.

“They won’t allow me to take the dog,” he said, “which is a part of me.”

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