It was a brief encounter, but it is telling.
Street Sense, a publication that aims to end homelessness in D.C., later identified the woman as unhoused.
In an article published last week, Street Sense’s Deputy Editor Gordon Chaffin describes several D.C. government staff members and a resident as taking the woman to a far edge of the park, away from where the speeches continued. There, he writes, she was asked questions for what “appeared to be an intake form” and she described how “one personal crisis after another had landed her in one of the many encampments the Bowser administration has been trying to remove.’
“They threw away my tent,” she is quoted as saying. “They threw away my tent in Dupont Circle.”
That encounter occurred toward the end of September, during a ceremony for the opening of Franklin Square, which many of the city’s unhoused used as a place to rest before it was closed for renovations. In the weeks since, the Bowser administration has faced widespread criticism for how it has gone about enforcing a pilot program that calls for removing encampments from city neighborhoods.
That criticism has come from D.C. Council members, advocates for the unhoused and the people that the city’s program purportedly aims to help.
“I don’t think people should be punished for your existence,” an elderly woman known as “Mama J,” who has lived on L Street for more than nine years, told The Washington Post’s Marissa J. Lang on the day tents were removed from an underpass in the NoMa neighborhood.
The NoMa encampment was the first of three scheduled for clearing under the pilot program, and what happened there on Oct. 4 amplified the concerns of those who already carried them and raised new ones.
Among the “trash” cleared that day were objects that showed how the people who lived there had made homes of those tents. Among them: a pumpkin someone had decorated, plants someone had displayed and an American flag someone had held.
But that’s not what left many people alarmed and outraged. That occurred after a construction vehicle scooped up a tent while a man remained in it. The man, who had gone unnoticed as he slept in the tent during the cleanup, was lifted by a front loader vehicle. Afterward, he was taken to the hospital and city officials said he did not suffer serious injuries. Even so, the mistake was not one that could, should or would be ignored.
The incident showed in a stark way the program’s potential, if done poorly, to disrupt and potentially harm the lives of some of the city’s most vulnerable.
Since then, several D.C. Council members have expressed concerns about the program, advocates have shared worries that the effort is causing confusion and division among the unhoused, and nearly 1,000 residents and advisory neighborhood commissioners have signed a letter calling on the city to halt planned evictions of the encampments and the creation of “no-tent zones.”
“These planned ‘no-tent zones’ and permanent evictions have the potential to disperse unhoused individuals throughout the city, strain social services connected to the individuals at these locations, and spread the Delta variant of COVID-19,” reads the letter.
City officials, meanwhile, have said they do not intend to stop or slow the effort, according to a follow-up article Lang wrote. They plan to proceed as scheduled at two encampments in Northwest Washington: a park on New Jersey Avenue and O Street, and an area on E Street near 20th Street.
It’s understandable why the city would want to continue. Cold weather will soon come, posing a risk beyond covid to those who remain on the street. Angela Belinda Hill, who lived for years under a bridge in Southeast Washington, was found dead last February after a cold snap.
The pilot program’s goal is also one that everyone can agree is needed: Get people off the streets and into homes. The program calls for placing people who live in those encampments into housing and connecting them to support services. More than 20 people who had been living at the NoMa locations were placed in hotels or given keys to apartments with year-long leases.
But that number only includes the people who were willing to leave the streets and who signed up for housing during a specific window. Others were left without housing options, during a pandemic that makes staying in a shelter riskier than normal. Some also had to figure out how to stay in contact with case workers and generous residents they have come to depend on for help.
Anyone who has worked with people living on the street, or even taken the time to talk with them, knows that housing is often only one of their problems. Many are also dealing with trauma and mental health issues.
The task the city is facing is not an easy one, and because of that — not despite that — they should listen to the people who now are asking them to slow down and stop before they clear another encampment. Within that criticism is a shared goal. It’s in all of our interests to see people out of tents and under roofs, and the city’s walkways cleared of clutter.
Those calling on the city to halt the program just want to see that done right, in a way that helps, instead of harms, those being displaced.
And if city officials do that, they can probably expect much different gestures from the unhoused and the housed.
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