‘Just leave me alone and I’ll make it’: D.C. plays Whack-a-Mole with homeless encampments

The capital’s kinder, gentler encampment sweeps are still “The Five-Block Shuffle,” played to a different tune.

Homeless Washington, D.C. residents pack up their tents during a city clean-up on Tuesday, June 20. CREDIT: Alan Pyke/ThinkProgress
Homeless Washington, D.C. residents pack up their tents during a city clean-up on Tuesday, June 20. CREDIT: Alan Pyke/ThinkProgress

WASHINGTON, D.C. — “Best year of my life, man,” 42-year-old Leon Willie said, “and they’re just gonna take everything and throw it in the garbage can.”

For 12 months, the city only sent social workers down here to talk to people like Willie. The mid-June Tuesday he sat waiting for the garbage trucks would be different.

Willie perched on a stool next to his tent under a train trestle on L Street in the Northeast quadrant of Washington, D.C., bracing for a city clean-up crew to come by and sweep a dozen or so homeless campers out from under the tracks.

The year he’d spent hunkered down under the dark stone rail bridge near Union Station had been different from the previous 10 Willie has spent on the streets of Virginia, Colorado, and the nation’s capital. He used that new stability to start taking classes toward a barber’s certificate. His tent isn’t much — none of them are — but the sheltered site and steady home-base have been the platform he needed to be able to make it to class regularly, keep appointments with caseworkers and friends who hire him for odds jobs, and spend time here and there with his kids.

The city clean-up threatened to fling Willie’s life back into chaos.

“I’m on a wing and a prayer, but I’m fucking making it, man. Just leave me alone, and I’ll make it,” he said. “I am in position right now. Please don’t knock it down, you know? They’re gonna come and snatch all that shit.”

“I am in position right now. Please don’t knock it down, you know?”

It was a bright, hot morning, only a bit cooler in the shade of the bridge. A sign on a post three feet from a corner of the dark-green tent warned that a clean-up crew was headed Willie’s way at 10:00 a.m. Such sweeps have a brutal reputation elsewhere; videos out of San Francisco, Denver, and other cities show police abruptly and indiscriminately confiscating homeless people’s belongings, and arresting those who linger too long while trying to scrounge their meager possessions together.

Most of the others who were camped there for months had already moved on in anticipation, Willie’s friend Eric Sheptock said — gone a whole 1,500 feet up the road, around the corner, past a shiny new REI superstore shaded by new condominium construction.

“It’s a cat and mouse game,” Sheptock said of the relocated tents. “The city will say, ‘We offered them rides to shelters, some we offered housing.’ But there is a waitlist for every housing program.”

But Willie and a few other holdouts were still camped out when city workers hopped out of their trucks, stretched, and got to work alongside members of the city’s homelessness outreach team.

The scene never got tense. The workers established a cordon to keep a handful of reporters away from the tents, but waited while each man and woman there packed up everything they can carry and shuffled away. Police stood by redirecting traffic, but never approached Willie or the others as they packed and chatted with the city workers they recognize.

They’d all seen each other before. Most likely they all will again, wherever the people displaced from this sheltered ad-hoc community end up resettling.

“People are gonna be right back here tonight, if there’s anything left. I don’t know what the plan is,” Willie said, balancing his packed-up tent on the handlebars of his bike and squinting into the sun at the edge of the work zone. “Watch your stuff go, shake out what’s left, take what I can and go. I don’t have a plan, man.”

Kinder, gentler futility

D.C.’s approach to homeless sweeps seems strikingly humane, given the horror stories that have fueled lawsuits and public protest in other cities. Nobody hassled anyone during the L Street sweep. One Department of Transportation worker spent five minutes talking with a bearded man who had just packed two whole tents of stuff atop a rickety shopping cart, trying to encourage him and asking if he had been taking his meds. The scene stood in sharp contrast to the stories from other cities of cops and public works officials throwing family photos, prescriptions, and identifying documents into shredders.

“The purpose of the encampment protocol is not to displace people, but to clean the site, address health and safety issues, and in some cases, provide a disruption in behavior that is not healthy for the consumer or the surrounding community. We are working to balance the needs of individuals experiencing homelessness with the needs of the surrounding neighborhood,” a city spokesperson said. The city has revised its camp clean-ups policy repeatedly in recent years in pursuit of a balance between public health concerns and the individual dignity of people like Willie.

Pressed on the reality that Willie’s life has been tossed askew by its latest sweeps, the spokesperson acknowledged there are not enough apartments available to offer anyone a clean transition out of tent life.

The District’s most recent five-year plan on homelessness predicted that the city would need to build hundreds of new permanent supportive housing units by 2020 to meet the needs of its homeless population. The current administration “is investing more per capita in affordable housing than any other city in the nation,” the spokesperson said, noting a $106 million expenditure to preserve existing units and build new ones had helped keep 1,200 units of affordable housing online in the past fiscal year.

“As long as you don’t have a tent, you don’t look like you’re comfortable, they don’t mind you being there.”

But waitlists and delays are still the reality for the city’s housing efforts, as Sheptock noted — casting the decision to uproot encampments in a harsh light.

“It’s legal in D.C. to sleep outdoors as long as you don’t have a structure,” Sheptock said. “It’s kind of ironic, you know, that as long as you don’t have a tent, you don’t look like you’re comfortable, they don’t mind you being there.”

There are nearly 8,000 people homeless in D.C. on any given night, according to the most recent estimates. The figure is rising, not falling, despite years of five- and ten-year city plans aimed at shrinking those numbers.

Even counting the thousands of actively homeless D.C. residents still manages to underestimate the scale of the problem. Tens of thousands more are clinging to unaffordable apartments, one medical episode or other unexpected expense away from eviction.

“Some 26,000 households are both extremely low-income and spending more than half their income on rent. Nearly one of every five children in the District faces such situations,” the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute found in a December report on the city’s affordable housing crisis. The city has lost about 2,300 units of affordable housing in the past decade as subsidy agreements expired and owners and developers opted to convert buildings like 401 K St. NW into market-rate or luxury housing to tap into the city’s booming economy — and another 13,000 units of the city’s current affordable housing stock will open up for market-rate redevelopment by 2020.

City outreach workers provided plastic bins for encampment residents to temporarily store some of their belongings under the District government’s custody. CREDIT: Alan Pyke/ThinkProgress
City outreach workers provided plastic bins for encampment residents to temporarily store some of their belongings under the District government’s custody. CREDIT: Alan Pyke/ThinkProgress

With affordable housing in short and shortening supply, the how of encampment sweeps doesn’t mean much to Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

“It doesn’t surprise me to hear it was relatively humane in how it was executed,” she said of the sweep that wiped out Willie’s encampment. “But that doesn’t change the bottom line: Sweeps are inherently not a good policy in the absence of some real solutions in terms of housing.”

Foscarinis and her colleagues see a lot of fires burning in their issue space these days. President Donald Trump’s wants to cut federal rent subsidy programs drastically, a move which would cause a new boom in homelessness. The Trump budget would also eliminate the federal working group that gathers and proliferates best-practices research on homelessness — a key actor in opposing the criminalization of homelessness, discouraging camp sweeps as ineffectual, and promoting the cost-effective and pragmatically-oriented idea of permanent supportive housing.

Trump’s federal housing policy maneuvers will throw gasoline on a wildfire in many of America’s rental housing markets. Record numbers of families are paying ludicrously high shares of their income on rents that continue to rise, pinching more and more people out onto the streets.

But ongoing local shortfalls in affordable housing are not being imposed by some invisible hand. In communities like the District, where there is huge developer demand to build and rent out new apartments at the highest possible price to the young professionals who staff the city’s powerful, Foscarinis sees affordability failures as an active choice.

“I think it is possible to harness the tremendous development happening here in the District and in cities around the country so that development happens more equitably,” she said. “The District has put significant attention on affordable housing, but it hasn’t invested enough, and it hasn’t targeted enough of that investment at people who are extremely poor.”

Many communities including D.C. try to get this right, through public investments in housing and incentives or zoning rules to encourage private developers to serve the public interest as well. But where those efforts fail, whether due to insufficient zeal or uncooperative private partners, even the most virtuously conducted homelessness policy becomes futile.

“The info I was gathering to help get people inside…was being used to arrest them a month later.”

San Francisco’s public social workers and non-profit homeless advocates have learned that the hard way over the past year. After waves of bad press regarding the aggressive behavior of police and public works officials during sweeps, the city publicly declared it would change course. It launched new “Navigation Centers,” billed as shelter-like places where people camped out could stay indefinitely until the city found them permanent supportive housing. It retooled its sweeps policy to make city social workers the lead edge, rather than law enforcement. No more would San Francisco shuffle camped-out indigents from one corner to the next without a real plan for housing them.

For a few months, the changes seemed to be working. According to local advocates and a former San Francisco Homeless Outreach Team worker who asked not to be identified, people were excited to go to the nav centers, and excited to be on a track to real housing for once.

And then the supply of permanent supportive housing units ran out. The nav centers quickly clogged. The camps swelled, driving complaints to the police department and 311 back up. And suddenly — quietly — the nav centers stopped being an indefinite staging area for people guaranteed to find real housing. Instead, those who agreed to move into the centers were told they had 30 days to figure something out or be discharged back onto the street.

That reversal left San Francisco’s homeless population in much the same spot that Leon Willie found himself that June morning in D.C. With no sanctioned place to go, Coalition on Homelessness’ Kelley Cutler said, people often go back to where they’d felt settled in before. Back to the camp sites the city had cleared maybe just weeks earlier — and back into a process lead by police first and social workers second.

City workers look on as one displaced homeless man moves his stuff outside the clean-up zone. CREDIT: Alan Pyke/ThinkProgress
City workers look on as one displaced homeless man moves his stuff outside the clean-up zone. CREDIT: Alan Pyke/ThinkProgress

“We’re hearing more and more that police are warning people about the sit-lie law,” Cutler said, referring to criminal penalties for sitting on public sidewalks. “They’re upping enforcement, based on complaints. The priority is not the needs of the people, it’s if the city supervisor is getting calls, [if] the police are getting calls to complain about tents.”

San Francisco’s relapse into move-along sweeps — without providing anyone a place to move along to — is conjuring bad old memories, Cutler said.

“We call it the Five-Block Shuffle,” she said. “Folks are in a more industrial area, they sweep the industrial area and push people into a residential area. Then the complaints skyrocket in the residential area, so they shift the sweeps to these more residential areas, and they just push folks right back where they came from.”

Now the police leading those sweeps are even deputizing the very same social workers who had been asked to promote the promise of the navigation centers.

“They developed a new team called the Re-encampment Prevention Team. They went out with the cops, and helped bust the re-encampment people,” a former San Francisco Homeless Outreach Team worker told ThinkProgress. “They were using our information to help arrest people. The info I was gathering to help get people inside the navigation center was being used to arrest them a month later.”

“I know the people hate it. Shit, I hate it too.”

Under the bridge in D.C., they didn’t just throw everything in the trash like Leon Willie had feared. But they didn’t give him and the others any place to go next, either. No obvious next stop to re-settle, keep up with his classes, and stay accessible to his kids.

A block south of Willie’s tent, on K Street under the same bridge, an older man who didn’t want to give his name pushed a shopping cart spilling over with clots of fabric, improvised furniture, shopping bags, and tent parts. Behind him, a crew fired up a pressure-washer. The trash trucks beeped their way out from under the bridge, working up around the corner to clear the next block of tents.

“They said if I set back up, they can throw my stuff away without any warning. So I’m really gonna be in a shithole then,” he said. “What’s a tent without a place to put it?”

He’d broken down two tents earlier while city workers watched, leaving about half of the stuff piled between them behind to be chucked into a trash truck.

“I tried to get my friend’s stuff too but I couldn’t get it all,” he said. “I tried to help him out. I got some of his stuff, but I don’t have everything.”

Out of the bridge’s shade pushing west, he made it half a block to a corner that’s shaded by gleaming office towers, brightly-lit retail outlets studding their ground floor.

He pushed his cart off the sidewalk and into the grass, a shopping bag falling off it at his feet.

“I know the people hate it,” he said, shrugging an elbow toward a cluster of well-dressed office workers sipping iced coffee nearby. “Shit, I hate it too. I wanna eat like everybody else wanna eat. I don’t wanna die.”

ThinkProgress is one of seven D.C.-based newsrooms dedicating a portion of our newsgathering to a June 29 collaborative news blitz aimed at uncovering barriers and solutions to ending homelessness. See all participants’ work at DCHomelessCrisis.Press