Owen Makel couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, felt the lights going out.
The 64-year-old with a thick white beard had just found out that he will soon have to leave a large encampment of homeless people living in tents near an overpass in Northwest Washington — his home for four months. The news Tuesday morning left him so bewildered, he said, he nearly fainted and had to go to George Washington University Hospital.
“How did I feel?” he asked, still wearing a hospital wristband. “I was upset. I was upset. . . . I almost blacked out. They were talking about taking the tents down, by force, if necessary.”
D.C. Deputy Mayor Brenda Donald said in a statement Tuesday that the city will soon clear the grassy stretch near 26th and K streets, where, less than 1,500 feet from the Kennedy Center, the homeless have erected dozens of tents since spring.
“For months, outreach teams from the Department of Behavioral Health and the Department of Human Services have worked with residents near 26th and K streets to get them the services they need,” said Donald, the D.C. official with responsibility for health and human services. “Late last month, the District notified individuals staying near the site that it would be cleared.”
The city also plans to clear out other encampments that officials have determined violate District regulations, she said.
Officials declined to say when the sweeps will occur, where the residents in these homeless communities will go and how many encampments are being targeted. “So far, we have connected dozens of residents with services and helped more find housing,” Donald said. “We still have capacity at our shelter sites and will make accommodations to ensure that we are able to bring people inside.”
Cities nationwide are grappling with how to handle a surge of homelessness fueled by broad economic forces. Many have enforced — or passed — ordinances that critics say criminalize homelessness. These regulations often prohibit panhandling, sleeping on benches or camping. Critics of these local measures, including the federal government, say they wrongly embroil the homeless in legal trouble.
“The criminalization of homelessness is not productive,” said Richard Cho, deputy director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. “It’s counterproductive and exacerbates the problem” of homelessness. “And from a legal perspective, certain [measures] can be found to be a violation of constitutional rights.”
In the clearest sign yet that the federal government opposes laws that appear to target the homeless, the Department of Justice in August filed a statement of interest in a case in Boise, Idaho. It questioned an ordinance there that outlaws sleeping or camping in public places. “Sleeping is a life-sustaining activity — i.e., it must occur at some time in some place,” the statement said. “If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.”
In 1981, the District passed a regulation that prohibited tents, trailers and “temporary abodes” in public places. And that law, officials said, is the legal basis for the planned removal of homeless encampments. “It’s not safe or sanitary for them to be living in a campsite out there,” city official Rachel Joseph said.
But the residents wonder where they can go that is safer. Where can they go that is more sanitary?
“People come out of the [formal homeless] shelters with bug bites and spots all over the place,” Makel said. “People [there] steal. You need to sleep with your shoes under your head.”
Mike Ford, 59, has lived at the encampment for nearly six months. He said it’s the best place in which he has lived since he became homeless about two years ago. “It’s better to be on the street than be in the shelter,” he said. “I get sick on their food.”
It is also unclear, advocates for the homeless said, whether the city can accommodate all of those living in the encampments. At one point, dozens of people — maybe as many as 60 — lived at the K Street community. Some of them were women.
Kate Coventry, a policy analyst at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, said only four or five vacant beds for homeless women were available in shelters this past week. “There are a dozen women down there, maybe more, and we only have five vacancies for women,” Coventry said. She added: “Capacity for women is always tight, and it’s particularly tight this year.”
Joseph said she is not worried about vacancies. Any homeless person who seeks shelter will be accommodated — regardless of what the vacancy tally says. “We will work with anyone to accommodate them, if they come inside.”
But it’s not that simple, camp residents said. The city is asking them — under threat of declaring them in violation of the law — to go somewhere where they may not feel comfortable. And Makel said he has no intention of going into a shelter.
He has been out here since nearly the birth of the encampment. He lives in one of the many tents a Gaithersburg man named Arnold Harvey gave the community in April after witnessing the fetid conditions some of the homeless had endured while living under the Key Bridge.
And so, on Tuesday afternoon, Makel girded himself against a chilly breeze. He said he is ready for winter. He said he has multiple tricks for making it through hypothermia season. He doesn’t see why he has to leave the encampment if he isn’t bothering anyone. He said he can’t picture a scenario in which he would willingly go into a shelter.
“I would be happiest here,” he said. “We ain’t bothering nobody. The only [threat] I see out here is a fox. It makes me feel safe.”