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D.C.’s ‘Skid Row-type thing’: Homeless encampments grow amid pandemic

The remains of a fenced-off encampment at 2nd and D streets NE.
The remains of a fenced-off encampment at 2nd and D streets NE. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
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Sitting shirtless in a homeless encampment at 12th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW, Keith Barnes, 38, prepared to shoot fentanyl.

“I am one of the most vicious drug addicts I know,” he said.

Though he doesn’t live here — his tent is pitched just south of Dupont Circle across from a patio bar — he is a frequent visitor to the encampment, which is yards from an elementary school, a float spa and a shuttered Bolt Burger. A friend injects the fentanyl into Barnes’s neck above a chest tattoo that quotes a Billy Joel lyric: “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.”

Such scenes are becoming frequent around the District as the city is becoming more divided about what to do with the homeless encampments.

Although official counts show the total number of homeless people in the District is going down, the number of chronically homeless people is increasing — and burgeoning encampments are now part of the fabric of downtown Washington.

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Some tent communities, such as those beneath underpasses surrounding Union Station, were established years ago, and are outfitted with portable toilets and drop-off tables for donations as unhoused residents cycle in and out. Other encampments, with less elaborate infrastructure, appear to have flowered in recent months amid the pandemic.

There are tents on K Street and Virginia Avenue overpasses. There are tents near the Federal Reserve along the entrance to the E Street Expressway. There are tents in front of Gonzaga College High School on North Capitol Street. A tent city welcomes visitors to the Kennedy Center — dozens of temporary shelters are now a permanent part of the vista for those looking west across the Potomac.

Residents and officials appear to be pushing back. In a statement last week, Park Service spokesman Mike Litterst said the parks at 12th and Massachusetts would be closed “to remove homeless encampments and provide needed maintenance” after reports of drug activity and violence.

Camping in national parks is prohibited, the statement said, but the Park Service has followed recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the D.C. government in permitting tents to remain during the pandemic.

“The NPS is abiding by this regulation whenever possible,” the statement said. “However, it’s our responsibility to consider the overall health and safety of all park users and neighbors and the condition of park resources.” A site that “poses a significant, continuing, security, health or safety risk” will be removed, according to the statement.

The action comes after letters and protests from residents and businesses near the park. The Park Service said there was no data available about the number of encampments on federal land.

The District also appears to be increasing the number of encampment cleanups, or what the city calls “engagements.”

Last year, the number of those engagements fell to 68 from 103 in 2019. However, Eric Falquero, editorial director for the homeless outreach group Street Sense Media, which publishes a newspaper sold by unhoused people, said there have been more than 50 engagements in 2021 already. Sometimes, officials remove tents, clean up trash and allow tents to return. Other times, tents aren’t allowed back.

“The District has streamlined the act of displacement and eviction from outdoor spaces,” Falquero wrote in an email. “Each time, it feels like we’re writing the same story, and not much is changing.”

D.C. officials said information about the number of encampment engagements so far in 2021 was not available.

In April, the D.C. Department of Human Services said the number of chronically homeless people — those who have experienced homelessness for at least one year while also struggling with a mental or physical disability, among other conditions — rose from 1,337 last year to 1,618 this year, an increase of 21 percent, The increase came even as the total number of homeless people declined from 6,380 in 2019 to 5,111 in 2020.

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Aaron Howe, an American University researcher who has studied encampments in the District for four years, said camps have sprung up amid the pandemic in a park at New Jersey Avenue and O Street NW, which is slated to be renovated this fall, and at 2nd and D streets NE, which was recently fenced off by the Park Service.

The population of the camps is not static, according to Howe. When one closes, residents simply migrate.

“It seems bad that they are talking about homelessness decreasing in Washington,” Howe wrote in a direct message. “Things are getting bad out there and it’s only the beginning.”

Barnes, the self-described homeless drug addict, offered a catastrophic vision of homelessness in D.C. With the number of unhoused residents growing, he said, large swaths of land must be found for growing tent communities, as in other cities, such as Los Angeles. He imagined reserving acres of Rock Creek Park for encampments, segregating them from residential areas with chain-link fences.

“What’s going to happen is a Skid Row-type thing,” Barnes said. “More and more people are becoming homeless. . . . People are broke!”

Christy Respress, executive director of Pathways to Housing DC, said there is only one solution to “shuffling people around” from encampment to encampment: housing.

It doesn’t make sense, she said, to close parks serving as a shelter of last resort to people enduring 100-degree temperatures as the national eviction moratorium expires and the end of D.C.’s eviction moratorium fast approaches. The eviction moratorium should also apply to the unhoused, she said.

“This isn’t a choice anyone is making,” Respress said. “This is a last step. Evicting people from the only place they have does not make sense.”

Others sympathetic to the plight of those living in encampments still want them gone.

Steven Reichert, a personal trainer, has lived in a Dupont Circle apartment for 33 years. For decades, he’s walked by a homeless encampment in front of Safeway on 17th Street NW. When the encampment was recently cleared, he sent a mass email thanking the D.C. Department of Human Services “for steering the homeless into city services that they need.”

“Our sidewalk is liberated!” the message said.

In an interview, Reichert said it isn’t right to let city residents “live in squalor on the streets.”

“The cause of the problem is certainly complex,” he said, “but it is clear that it is illegal for anyone to construct tents or any other structures to live in the public right of way. So the first step in solving this problem is to start enforcing the law.”

As encampments close, some living near them have reached out to public officials — or just reached out directly to their unhoused neighbors.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Alexandra Bailey, who represents the area including encampments at 12th and Massachusetts, sent a petition to U.S. Park Police urging them not to evict residents. Her petition was denied, she said.

“We need to stop feigning morality and kicking the can down the road,” she wrote in a message. “Our response to homelessness cannot be to put them out of sight.”

On Thursday, Jason Fort stopped his car by the encampment of more than two dozen tents at New Jersey Avenue and O Street NW. He unloaded packs of bottled, chilled water, setting them down at the edge of the park. The bottles beaded in the punishing heat.

Fort had driven by the park many times, he said. Today, he wanted to help.

“I just can’t in good conscience drive by,” he said. “It’s hot as hell out here.”

Charles Bailey, an encampment resident, took one of the bottles. Bailey said he had been homeless in the District for 25 years, ending up in the park after he was released from prison early because of the coronavirus pandemic. He disdained shelters as havens for bedbugs, instead choosing to battle emboldened rats that “do cartwheels and wave” as they freely roam the encampment.

Like Barnes, Bailey imagined a safe space for those who choose to live in encampments — an enormous field set aside by the city where people could pitch their tents in peace and stay as long as they needed. There would be access to clean bathrooms as those seeking housing vouchers waited for placements.

The current alternative — a precarious existence in a rodent-infested city park from which he would probably be evicted in a few months — wasn’t pretty. But Bailey was used to it.

“It’s rough,” he said. “If you can survive one night on the street in D.C., you’re tough.”