First the garbage trucks arrived, then the front-end loader, then teams of D.C. sanitation workers armed with shovels and rakes. Within three hours, the small neighborhood of tents and barbecue pits that had become a mainstay this winter for homeless men and women — and a nuisance for neighbors — was gone.
Left dangling on a tree near the end of Whitehurst Freeway, north of the Kennedy Center, were two broken Christmas ornaments.
The bulldozing of the encampment took place where at least 12 people had been staying one night last month during a city count of the homeless.
In the first few months after Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) took office in 2015, Department of Public Works employees repeatedly demolished encampments in Foggy Bottom and around the city’s quickly gentrifying NoMa neighborhood, drawing criticism from some religious leaders and advocates for the poor.
Bowser had entered office promising to end chronic homelessness by 2020, but critics accused her of mainly trying to keep the problem out of view.
Last year, as Bowser focused on winning legislative approval to construct a new network of shelters for homeless families, her administration seemed to back away from removing encampments.
But Bowser spokesman Kevin Harris said the encampment along the mazelike intersection of Whitehurst, K Street NW and Rock Creek Parkway had become particularly problematic, with mounds of trash and rodents.
“The health and well-being of all District residents, including individuals experiencing homelessness as well as those who access the public space, is an important principle,” Harris said in an email.
“Given the continual growing mound of trash at this location and the number of rats that were present, this site posed a health concern. Additionally, its proximity to the off-ramp also raised safety concerns,” he said.
Harris said six people from the site had been moved into permanent housing over the past several months. An additional 10 or so milled about Tuesday, some speaking with city workers who tried to help them sort their belongings into piles to keep. None of those present when the cleanup began at 10 a.m. took up city employees on offers of rides to shelters.
Two outreach coordinators from nearby Miriam’s Kitchen, which feeds hundreds of homeless men and women daily in the Foggy Bottom area, watched as the demolition unfolded and said those displaced probably had simply moved elsewhere in the neighborhood.
“Everything was amicable today,” said Lara Pukatch, Miriam’s director of advocacy, noting that the city gave advance warning of the cleanup. “But it was Valentine’s Day, if anyone was thinking about that. We had actually just launched a campaign to call the mayor’s office and ask her to spread the love and to make additional investments this year in chronic homelessness.”
Indeed, an hour before cleanup crews arrived at the encampment, church leaders in nearby Georgetown had emailed parishioners with the subject line, “Call-in to Mayor Bowser’s Office — TODAY!”
Part of the email called for a new $17 million investment in homelessness in the mayor’s next budget, saying “nobody should live or die on the streets of DC.”
According to a nightly census on Feb. 2, there were 1,079 single men, 332 single women, and 2,979 parents and children in D.C. homeless shelters and motel rooms. About 250 were in recreation centers, which open only when there is a high danger of hypothermia.
Kate Coventry, who tracks homelessness spending by the city for the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, said there are many reasons some homeless people prefer to brave the elements rather than go to the city’s shelters for single adults.
Couples of the opposite sex cannot go into shelters together; family members can’t either, such as a man and his mother who lived under the Whitehurst. In addition, the shelters often are infested with bedbugs, and those who frequent them describe unsafe conditions where theft is common and restful sleep is scarce.
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who represents the area around Tuesday’s cleanup, said he supported the mayor’s action.
“Encampments are illegal. You cannot camp on public land,” Evans said, “and it’s not a victimless crime. I get lots of complaints from residents in that area. . . . There are no bathroom facilities. We get instances of people defecating in yards, going out and panhandling and creating a chaotic situation.”
Evans said he knows city shelters have a bad reputation, “but that’s where they should go. We have places for folks. That’s the answer at this point in time.”
Pukatch said it is not a lasting solution. “We have some who live in shelters, some staying in the street, and some in encampments,” she said. “[Removing one encampment] — it’s not that simple to say it’s a good or bad thing. The solution is to connect people with housing. That’s what they deserve and what they need.”