King Mark watched in silence as a bright orange dump truck reversed toward the tent where he had made his home for months.
A homeless veteran who said he has schizophrenia, Mark watched as city workers tossed his belongings into the truck. A grill he had been given. Pairs of socks and a shoe. His partner, Tom, lost his Social Security card and birth certificate. Some of his artwork, too.
“I was here, but they took it all,” said Mark, 60.
Cleanups such as the one in early November at the Foggy Bottom encampment where Mark, Tom and more than a dozen other people lived have become routine in a city where the homeless population has exploded.
Twice a week, five city offices coordinate to clear encampments across the District as part of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s “comprehensive strategy to make homelessness rare, brief and nonrecurring,” said Sean Barry, spokesman for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services. He said officials paused the encampment response at least once so people at the site could retrieve vital documents.
The “guiding principle” behind the efforts, Barry said, is to protect the “health and safety of anyone who frequents these public spaces.”
But advocates say the city’s encampment cleaning — which records show cost taxpayers more than $172,000 in a three-month span — does little more than punish residents who have nowhere else to go.
“Blankets, tents — the city is sometimes throwing away these people’s means of survival,” said Ann Marie Staudenmaier, a lawyer with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “They are coming back to the same sites less than 24 hours later. Then they have to start over.”
The rapidly gentrifying District has the highest per capita rate of homelessness of any city in the country, with 124 residents per 10,000 living without a home, according to a 2016 survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The survey also found that while the number of people experiencing homelessness decreased nationally by 13 percent from 2009 to 2016, it increased by 34 percent in the District, where lack of affordable housing has pushed longtime residents out of the city or, sometimes, onto the streets.
Mark and the majority of residents at the encampment near E and 21st streets NW have returned since the Nov. 2 cleanup. Little cleaning was actually done, Mark said.
Barry said officials removed “a number of trash items,” but he did not provide further information when asked for details about the cleaning. At other sites where tents are set up on sidewalks, he said, workers will power-wash the area. That did not happen at the E Street camp, he said, because it is on a small plot of grass.
Several George Washington University students whose dormitories are near the encampment at E and 21st said they had befriended people living in the tents. Angered about the planned cleanup in early November — which the city posted signs about two weeks in advance, as is its protocol — students showed up to protest.
Arty Lowenstein, a freshman from New York, tried to negotiate with D.C. police to give Mark and his partner more time to pack up their tent. He recorded their exchange and the cleanup on his phone.
Police said advanced notice had been given and time was up. The video shows the dump truck reversing toward the green tent, which was covered by a blue tarp for extra insulation. Soon after, workers began tossing items into the dump truck.
“I’m sorry, man,” Lowenstein said.
“I don’t blame you,” Mark replied.
Lowenstein, who turned 18 on Thursday, and sophomore Aaron Snyder, who is studying political science, joined homeless men who were sitting on a tent that police were trying to inspect. One of the homeless men was arrested and charged with assault on a police officer because he “[smacked] her left hand, causing a cut to her thumb that began to bleed as she attempted to open the tent,” according to a D.C. police incident report.
But Snyder, who in the video is pulled off the tent by police, said the officers were to blame for “hitting and shoving” the protesters.
Lowenstein and Snyder testified about the cleanup during an oversight hearing held by the D.C. Council. The council questioned HyeSook Chung, deputy mayor for health and human services, whose department leads the city’s efforts to combat homelessness.
After listening to the students’ testimony, council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) said that “cleanup” appears to be a euphemism for demolition.
Gray served a term as mayor before Bowser (D) defeated him in the 2014 Democratic primary, and he is weighing a rematch. He said his administration treated homeless residents in a more “humane way.”
The District has long conducted cleanups, but efforts escalated beginning in November 2015 when officials cleared a large encampment at 26th and K streets NW, said Staudenmaier, who joined the legal clinic in 1996. She said the ramp-up is tied to gentrification. Although the District’s economy is booming, many of the city’s longtime residents have been left behind, according to an October study.
“Wealthy, mainly white people are moving in and saying, ‘Why are there homeless people?’ and ‘We don’t want those people in our view because we paid a lot of money for our house in Logan Circle,’ ” Staudenmaier said.
Bowser, who has announced that she will run for reelection but does not yet face a serious challenger, “is beholden to those people because they donate to her campaign,” Staudenmaier said.
Barry said that cleanups are based on inspections by city workers. He said that the mayor is committed to tackling homelessness in the nation’s capitol in a variety of ways and that encampment cleanups are “not reflective of our broader strategy,” focused on providing housing for residents and addressing the causes of homelessness to prevent it on the front end. This week, Bowser officially launched a citywide effort, dubbed “Home for the Holidays,” to place 400 of the District’s “most vulnerable households in permanent housing during the holiday season.”
Bowser’s administration has celebrated a 10.5 percent reduction in homelessness from January 2016 to January 2017, when volunteers counted 7,473 people who were living without a home, at least 897 of whom were living on the streets
But that decrease followed a marked increase in homelessness during her first year. In January 2015, the month she took office, 7,298 people were counted as homeless, meaning the total number of people on the street has increased during her tenure, despite the decrease from 2016 to 2017.
During the three-month period between Oct. 1, 2015, and Jan. 8, 2016, the city spent $172,238.89 on cleanups, according to information provided by the city to the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless after a D.C. Council oversight hearing with Chung in February 2016. Barry said he does not have recent figures available.