The city told the homeless men and women camped under the H Street bridge that their belongings would be removed at 10 a.m. sharp Thursday. The city was right on time.
At the top of the hour, workers wearing gloves and carrying shovels and rakes moved in to begin ridding the sidewalk of evidence of the tents and personal items of 15 or so homeless people under the bridge in Northeast Washington, just steps from Union Station and a few blocks from the Capitol.
Some had been living there for just a few weeks. Others, for years.
For the homeless, there was mostly resignation as they watched their meager possessions being trashed or tagged for temporary storage.
“I think we were just a nuisance to people who walk by here,” said Omar Abdullah, 41, who had camped at the site with his twin brother, Ali, for the past six months. He said that it was difficult to get adequate help from the people who provide services to the homeless and to navigate the system.
“I’m always starting from zero, just not having anything,” said Abdullah, a native Washingtonian who a few years ago had been working as a carpenter in Atlanta. Drugs and depression had derailed him, and now he watched as another chapter in his life came to another disappointing end.
“People out here are just tired out, burned out,” he said. “You end up here and you end up stuck.”
City officials and homelessness-services contractors were on hand to assure those they were moving that their belongings would be stored nearby for 30 days and that anyone who wanted to stay in a shelter would be accommodated.
But many of the homeless didn’t want to move and weren’t convinced by the city’s promises.
“They don’t have any shelters for seniors,” said Bobbie Mascuch, 64, who said she has been living under the bridge for the past 18 months. Mascuch said the only reason the city was acting to remove them was because, a few months ago, a good Samaritan gave the homeless tents to sleep in, which raised their visibility.
“I was rained on, sleeted on, snowed on, and no one did anything,” Mascuch said. “Then, in December, we got tents and now they want us out. That started problems and that started people complaining.”
Mascuch said she would be back under the bridge Thursday night — without a tent.
“Let ’em take me to jail,” she said. “It’s not against the law to sleep in the street.”
City officials said the removal of the tents was necessary because the encampment violated a law against camping without a permit. In November, the city removed residents of an encampment for the homeless where dozens of tents had been erected at 26th and K streets NW, just blocks from the Kennedy Center.
“It’s not illegal to sleep on the street, but you can’t pitch a tent on the street,” said Rachel Joseph, chief of staff to Brenda Donald, the city’s deputy mayor for health and human services. The city, Joseph said, had reached out to the homeless to give them lots of advance notice of the plans to remove the tents, and was working with its contractors to arrange housing .
Chris Parks is torn about the city’s response. Parks, who works nearby, started a Gofundme.com campaign in December to supply the tents and sleeping bags to the homeless living under the bridge.
“It was starting to get really cold, and I would see them every day, and I felt that something needed to be done immediately,” Parks said. “But it wasn’t until the tents went up that the city posted the removal signs.”
Parks realizes that the tents led to the displacement, but he also thinks it made the homeless more visible. “People started taking notice, and they’re getting more involved,” he said.
Other advocates for the homeless were also on hand Thursday to keep an eye on the tent removal and to offer assistance.
“These people have mental issues; they have physical issues,” said Eric Sheptock, who lives in a shelter and has been a longtime advocate. “We want to make sure that the city keeps its promises. And if the city doesn’t, we want to hold their feet to the fire.”
The city has been under pressure to address its homelessness issues. An audit released Wednesday by the Office of the District of Columbia Auditor found that the Human Services Department mismanaged a private contract for the city’s homelessness program in fiscal 2014. The audit said the department did not provide adequate oversight of the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, the main city contractor that administers services to the homeless, including at D.C. General, the city’s troubled shelter. According to the audit, the city overpaid for services and didn’t monitor its contracts adequately.
But Kathy Patterson, the District’s auditor, did praise the administration of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) as taking steps to improve oversight of homelessness programs and instituting reforms of the system it inherited.
The removal of the encampments recently has become a flash point in the city’s homelessness crisis. It has drawn attention back to the plight of thousands of homeless single adults after years of an increasing amount of city resources going to deal with the District’s soaring numbers of homeless families. Many homeless men and women say that the conditions of the city’s shelters are deplorable and that they feel safer sleeping outside.
Bowser’s administration has taken a hard line against encampments, with some homelessness advocates saying that the removals seem focused primarily on avoiding the poor optics of tent cities that have taken root in Los Angeles. The mayor, however, said she plans to begin refurbishing or replacing shelters for singles, as well as opening day centers where they could do laundry.
For Abdullah, the politics and policy of homelessness felt removed from his immediate situation. The day’s events created an unwanted disruption to his routine and added yet more pressure to life on the streets.
“It seems desperate. I’m trying not to get stressed-out,” he said. “We got accustomed to this and knew what to expect.”
Staff writer Aaron Davis contributed to this report.