This article is part of our 2019 contribution to the DC Homeless Crisis Reporting Project in collaboration with other local newsrooms. You can see all of our collective work published throughout the day at DCHomelessCrisis.press and join the public Facebook group to discuss how to act on this information and add context to areas we may have overlooked.
I live in NoMa, just a 10-minute walk from the underpass encampments mentioned in the NoMa BID’s open letter. As someone who walks past the encampments daily, I was shocked to read the insensitive, dehumanizing letter penned by Robin-Eve Jasper, the NoMa BID President. Not only does the letter espouse common misconceptions about homelessness, its causes and solutions, but it also mischaracterizes the homeless community of NoMa as a dangerous “other.”
The underlying message of the letter is that the NoMa BID wants the homeless people out from underpasses — but they don’t care where they go. Their only concern is the creation of “safe-passage zones” for those who they consider to be the real residents of NoMa.
A Community of “Unity”
Eric Tars, Legal Director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLHCP), points out that homelessness itself is not illegal, despite the increased criminalization of the ways in which people experiencing homelessness can exist. He says we should question our assumptions of who exactly is entitled to occupy public spaces and why. When NoMa BID distinguishes people experiencing homelessness from “ordinary residents,” they fail to understand that many “ordinary residents” are just a few hard times away from homelessness, too. Having or not having a traditional home should not dictate who is considered part of the community.
The residents of NoMa without homes are part of our community and should be treated as such. When I went by the encampments to speak with residents there, I met Michael, who has lived in a tent on the M Street underpass for three months. He says that he and other homeless people have a very good relationship with the nearby apartment residents. He explains that people who live in the apartments across from the underpasses often come by with water bottles, granola bars, and other food for the encampment’s residents. The food is often distributed amongst the residents, who share whatever is given to them.
The NoMa BID’s letter describes homeless people “[menacing] passerby” and leaving “food, trash, [and] broken glass” on the sidewalks. But Michael paints a different picture — he says that the homeless residents are extremely aware of and sympathetic to the pedestrians who walk past the encampments. According to him, they make every effort to keep the area clean, even deploying rotating community cleaning crews to tidy the areas pedestrians tend to frequent.
Another man, also named Michael, says he doesn’t live in the encampment, but spends a lot of time with the residents there. He describes the NoMa homeless community as one of “unity.” He says that the apartment residents are so kind that the homeless residents would never want to jeopardize their relationship by harassing them or making the roads impassable. “I’ve never seen camaraderie quite like that between the people who live up there and the guys who live down here,” he says of the apartment dwellers and encampment residents.
Solutions, Not Disgust
As a part of our community, NoMa residents experiencing homelessness deserve to be part of an honest effort in finding creative and effective solutions to our shared problems. The NoMa BID claims that conflating “the problems experienced by encamped individuals only with housing affordability is misguided,” flagging the need for mental health care and drug rehabilitation services. Eric Tars says that “housing first” remains the bipartisan, accepted guidance on lifting people out of poverty and helping them access supportive services. He explains that people are far more likely to recover or maintain a consistent medication schedule with safe, legal housing.
The NoMa residents experiencing homelessness tend to agree. Andrea, a woman who has been homeless in the area since 2012, says she once hoped NoMa would have a better use for its funds than to install decorative light fixtures in the underpasses. She wonders how many people could have been housed for the same cost.
The NLCHP stresses that adequate housing is a human right, and tents do not qualify as adequate housing. However, Eric Tars says that reports from the field encourage the legalization of encampments, as long as that doesn’t alleviate pressure on the government to find more sustainable, long term solutions. Ideally, Tars says, these encampments would be legal; secure day and night; located conveniently to public transit and services; and be provided with sanitation, sharps containers and portable toilets. These types of communities already exist elsewhere. The NoMa BID complains of sanitation concerns, but doesn’t present solutions for the people who are dealing with these health issues themselves. Tars suggests recruiting local businesses to open their bathrooms on a rotating schedule for people to be allowed to bathe or clean their clothing and belongings.
The sustainable solution remains the provision of safe, secure, and affordable housing, which Michael says he and the other homeless residents would be happy to take. Lack of space is not the issue. Giant luxury apartment complexes are opening in NoMa at a rapid pace.
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Tars says that these new developments certainly contribute to the gentrification of communities like NoMa — but he also says they can be part of the solution. Union Place, a luxury apartment building less than a block away from these encampments, boasts 525 units. Only 248 are filled as of August 25th. Tars says that these buildings should allow homeless people to reside in their vacant units, even if only temporarily. If they are concerned about damages, he suggests that the buildings work with the city to take out insurance policies paid to protect the properties.
Andrea says she and other NoMa residents experiencing homelessness don’t want to live in “unsafe and unsanitary conditions,” like the open letter suggests. They want order and normalcy in the same way that those with housing do. The NoMa BID should take initiative and apologize to the residents of the encampments and admit that their exclusion from the NoMa community is unjust and unfair. They are D.C. residents and the NoMa BID should seek to serve them just as it serves all other “ordinary residents.”