Washington D.C., Jan 17, 2020 / 08:01 am (CNA).- A homeless encampment in Washington, DC, was permanently dismantled on Thursday, in a move the city said was designed to better improve the safety of the city’s sidewalks.
One former resident told CNA that he believes the dismantling was necessary, and he blames the city for letting the encampment escalate to the point of being out of control.
The encampment, located beneath the K Street NE train bridge, is one of three located on the city’s K, L, and M streets in the northeast quadrant of the city. It was cleared out at 10 a.m. on Thursday.
That afternoon, just one tent–belonging to a woman who was placed in a psychiatric hold earlier that morning out of fear she was going to harm herself–remained, along with scattered litter.
Most of the former K Street residents have migrated to one of the other encampments nearby. One of those residents, Mike Harris, spoke to CNA about why he chose to move to L Street and why he thought it was “necessary” for the city to clean out his former street.
Harris said that he had lived for about eight months on K Street, and during that time, the conditions in the area had gotten continuously worse. Harris, who uses a wheelchair, said that he had been unable to navigate the sidewalks due to the size, placement, and number of tents, as well as the presence of lawn chairs in front of the tents.
He said he empathized with the people who complained about being unable to push strollers or even walk on the sidewalks due to the presence of tents.
Harris said that while he was not sure it was necessary to permanently shut down the encampment, he did think it needed to be addressed, as the situation had deteriorated in recent months.
Harris laid blame at the city for how K Street had changed. He told CNA that when he first moved to K Street, the city had been enforcing various regulations and laws regarding the placement and size of tents. That changed over time.
“I was there for two days and my tent got a warning,” said Harris. “I wasn’t even that far over.” He said that his neighbors, whose tents were blocking pedestrians from using the sidewalk, never received similar warnings, even though their tents were in violation.
“[Now] 26 to 40 people who lived under the K Street bridge got displaced because approximately five or six people didn’t want to abide by the rules,” said Harris. “Everybody had to suffer the consequences of the actions of a few.”
Harris told CNA that he thinks the city of Washington wanted the encampment to become a “red flag situation” that would “justify the removal” of the tents. Hence, they stopped enforcing rules.
Fr. Bill Carloni, the pastor at the nearby Holy Name of Jesus Parish, told CNA that he has been ministering to the homeless populations for about three years. His parish runs a food pantry and also distributes lunches to the homeless on a weekly basis. Carloni told CNA he was concerned about what the future would hold for the former K Street residents.
“Unfortunately, I still don’t know what happens now,” Carloni told CNA. He said that over the last eight months, he had noticed a “significant increase” in the number of people living under the bridge.
“I think that more people are getting priced out of DC,” said Carloni. “I mean, we see another element of it where more people are coming looking for emergency rental assistance because they can no longer afford the rents and they are on the verge of becoming homeless.”
Carloni said there is no “typical” resident of the homeless encampments, and that they ranged in age, health, and reasons for homelessness. Many suffer from mental illness. He said that while there was a reputation for danger and crime in the encampment, Carloni said he’d “never felt threatened” or been mistreated.
As a pastor, Fr. Carloni said that he worries about the people he ministers to on the streets, and when the encampments are cleaned out, he has to work hard to track everyone down to ensure they are doing okay. While Carloni was concerned that there would be conflict due to the melding of the various encampments, Harris said that there was none of that thus far.
“I’ve found [the homeless population on K Street] to be amicable and kind of community oriented, like I know a lot of them, that they care for each other,” Carloni said.
“They like to eat together as a community and they like to share.”
Harris confirmed this. As he spoke to CNA, other residents of L Street were helping him to move his belongings into his tent. He said there were plans to construct a community table on the street, where the residents would gather for meals and fellowship.
There are imminent plans to install a generator on the street corner to provide electricity to charge phones–something that Harris said is crucial in the job search that might lead to getting off the street. This generator was purchased with money that was crowdfunded.
Harris said that he had been homeless for about a year, and had lived in the city’s homeless shelters before making the move to K Street. He told CNA that he much preferred life on the streets to life in the shelters.
Life in the shelters, said Harris, was over-regulated and no safer than living in a tent.
“[The shelters] are nothing to write home about,” he said. “There’s violence, there’s germs, there’s disease, physical altercations, and a lot of stuff that you have to deal with living in such close proximity.”
On the street, he said, there are no set times to check in or leave, and there is more privacy and divided up space amongst residents. In the DC shelters, people sleep on cots or bunk beds.
“There are benefits of being out here. There’s some shortfalls, too,” he said, noting that he recently had a tent stolen from him when it was packed up. “And I’ve had a backpack stolen too, but I’ve had stuff stolen at shelters too.”
“Yeah, it’s bearable. It’s much more bearable than an institutionalized shelter-type situation,” said Harris.
Harris will not be spending much more time on the streets. He received a housing voucher, and had there not been a “signature snafu,” he would already have moved into an apartment by now. He told CNA that he has a “great support team,” and that he regularly attends Bible study, church services, and a men’s group.
It was these influences which helped him to keep his faith during his time being homeless, and he hopes to one day to help others in his situation, as “some of the people out here who are chronically homeless, they lose hope, drive, motivation, courage and faith.”
“I’ve got a network of positive-minded individuals that’s helping me weather the storm, and I’m going to try to encourage other people who are currently homeless to do the same thing,” he said.
He urges his associates on the streets to “develop a network, a support group, a support team. Someone that can call and check in on, come by, see if you’re doing alright.”
“Just to let you know that someone cares [about you] means a lot.”