Residents of the encampment, some unprepared for the eviction, scoured their tents for belongings, stuffing whatever they could into plastic bags. Less than an hour later, public works crews were powerwashing the empty sidewalks.
Underpasses in the area, home to several dozen people, have been cleared and cleaned more than 90 times in recent years, but city officials say this time will be the last for K Street. Under a policy announced by the mayor last week, the tents — and the struggling people living in them — will not be permitted to return.
“Tents and living in tents is not permitted in the District of Columbia, and it’s not safe for the inhabitant. It’s also not safe for the surrounding community,” D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said last week.
Wayne Turnage, the city’s deputy mayor for health and human services, said officials with public works, D.C. police and other agencies will return to ensure that tents don’t reappear. He said a group of city workers have been reaching out to homeless residents at the encampment, trying to connect them to shelters and other city services.
“There is a bed available to everyone on the street experiencing homelessness,” he said. “If we can get people to come into the system, we feel we can accommodate them. There are no special preparations needed.”
Officials dismantled the encampment because narrow sidewalks and a proliferation of tents made it difficult for pedestrians, including people using wheelchairs or pushing strollers, to pass through, Turnage said. Encampments beneath underpasses on L and M streets NE, which have larger rights of way, will be allowed to stay.
Turnage said the city has no plans to dismantle other encampments in the city.
As a garbage truck moved in Thursday, 58-year-old Michael Harris — sometimes referred to as the underpass’s “mayor” — sat in his wheelchair in front of the community’s belongings: tents, grocery carts, storage bins, sleeping bags and furniture.
Harris had slept little the night before, kept awake by disruptions after another resident started a fire. He wasn’t sure where he would stay that night but had staked out locations at another underpass.
“It doesn’t really matter because I’m a soldier,” he said.
Those who were forced to leave — having faced the ire of some NoMa residents and the District government — soon learned of new foes. Many living in the L Street underpass didn’t want the displaced K Street community coming their way.
At Second and L streets NE, the cutting wind blew tarps and blankets into the road. Andre Juste and Anthony Cosby scrambled to grab them, stuffing them into garbage bags. The men live beneath the L Street underpass and, seeking to avoid community criticism, try to keep it tidy.
“Every day, we get up and clean L Street,” Cosby said. “We get the trash up. We make sure there’s no needles on the ground. . . . We don’t harass nobody. L Street hasn’t gotten no complaints.”
“Over there, it was not like that,” Juste said of his K Street neighbors. “It was nasty and dirty.”
Even as he contemplated a move to another underpass — possibly along L Street — Harris understood their point: Sometimes people don’t like new neighbors.
“They weren’t sure what kind of drama they were going to get,” he said. “If Pearl Jam moved right beside you and was jamming at hours that was uncool, I think you’d be calling the police.”
The K Street encampment’s removal comes weeks after city officials said at least 117 homeless people died in the District last year, four of them in the area of the NoMa underpasses. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request from The Washington Post, the city’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said 52 homeless deaths were classified as “accidents,” including 44 cases of intoxication and three in which people were struck by a vehicle. Twenty-seven were classified as “natural” and eight were homicides.
Advocates for the homeless said their numbers showed deaths last year reached a five-year high.
The K Street encampment was cleared amid contentious debate around affordable housing and the rights of homeless residents citywide and in NoMa, a fast-gentrifying neighborhood in the area north and west of Union Station.
In August, Robin-Eve Jasper, president of the NoMa Business Improvement District, wrote a public letter referring to the “unsafe and unsanitary environments” of the neighborhood’s underpasses and urged that “something be done to recognize and protect the right of D.C. residents, workers and visitors to safely use and pass through public space in NoMa.” Jasper this week said she had no comment on the city’s tent removal.
D.C. Health and Human Services documents show the number of homeless encampment cleanups in NoMa and in the District have increased since 2015.
That year, there were three cleanups in the neighborhood among 29 citywide. In 2018, there were 36 cleanups in NoMa out of 100 citywide. Between January and September of last year, the most recent period for which numbers are available, there were 29 cleanups in NoMa, with 90 citywide.
Schroeder Stribling, a member of the city’s Interagency Council on Homelessness and chief executive of nonprofit N Street Village, whose services include a shelter for unaccompanied women about a mile from the K Street encampment, said the city will find a bed for anyone who asks. However, the shelter at N Street Village is operating at capacity.
“There should be nobody in the street, on the street or in the shelter,” she said. “There should be affordable, accessible housing for everyone who needs it. That’s just not case in a community where rent and wages continue to diverge.”
Two blocks from the razed encampment, Jessica Kiaraliza Martinez, a homeless advocate with D.C.-based nonprofit HIPS, stood across the street from Kittie Kagona’s tent at its new M Street location. Kagona, who has lived along K Street for about two years, is hoping her days along NoMa’s underpasses are numbered.
As her former neighbors searched for somewhere to call home, she left for an appointment with hopes of receiving a housing voucher. Martinez stayed behind, guarding Kagona’s belongings in their new surroundings.
“We’re trying to make sure homeless people’s property isn’t destroyed,” Martinez said. “When you’ve lost everything, you deserve to have something. I feel like this is the city saying homeless people don’t deserve anything.”
Joe Heim contributed to this report.