When The Homeless Turn To Tents, And Find Themselves On The Wrong Side Of The Law

CREDIT: THINKPROGRESS/PATRICK SMITH/SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: THINKPROGRESS/PATRICK SMITH/SHUTTERSTOCK

ThinkProgress has dedicated a portion of our coverage on Wednesday, June 29th to reporting on the state of homelessness in Washington, D.C. This story is part of that series.

On a cold day last November, Washington, D.C. officials informed dozens of people living in a homeless encampment near the city’s infamous Watergate building that they had two weeks to move.

Some of the people at “Camp Watergate” were directed to shelters. Others were given housing applications without a guarantee they’d secure the keys to a home. Several people weren’t offered alternative housing solutions, and didn’t meet the requirements for emergency shelter.

On November 20, less than a week before Thanksgiving, the city moved in to clear the camp. Many residents were left without a place to sleep, and with no plan for where to go next. According to local news publication DC Media Group, some of the occupants’ property was thrown away, and some of it was loaded onto trucks. Roughly a dozen tents were dismantled.

A man sleeps on the steps of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery CREDIT: Thinkprogress/alejandro davila fragoso
A man sleeps on the steps of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery CREDIT: Thinkprogress/alejandro davila fragoso

The nation’s capital has the biggest income gap in the country and a rapidly gentrifying population that’s driving up rent, setting the stage for homelessness to proliferate. There’s currently a freeze on the D.C. Housing Authority’s affordable housing waiting list, but a city ordinance passed in 1981 made camping out in public spaces illegal. Even though they can’t afford housing elsewhere, people aren’t allowed to set up temporary abodes on the streets. If they do, they’re treated like criminals.

Ann Marie Staudenmaier, an attorney who works closely with homeless people in D.C., says police aren’t to blame for the resulting crack-down on encampments. Instead, it’s local lawmakers who are mostly responsible for the criminalization of homelessness by ramping up efforts to dismantle camps in the past year.

D.C., which has the highest ratio of cops to citizens of any U.S. city, had 8,350 homeless people as of January 2016. A small percentage of them are unsheltered and have to worry about the ordinance banning temporary abodes on the street. But Staudenmaier, who works for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless and trains the Metropolitan Police Department on homelessness issues, doesn’t think police pose the biggest problem for people living on the streets.

“They don’t want to be the people kicking somebody out of the encampment,” she said.

Across the country, people are struggling to find homes and scrape together enough change to pay for temporary shelter — all while police breathe down their backs. City laws that make it illegal to sit, sleep, camp out, and ask for money in public spaces are growing in number. Today, more than half of all U.S. cities have turned homelessness into a crime, making life on the streets even more difficult. In some municipalities — Daytona Beach, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Orlando — it’s against the law to merely feed a homeless person, so those who offer assistance are charged exorbitant fines.

Frankly, the police are the least of their concerns.

Police are usually tasked with enforcing these laws. Some officers treat that responsibility like a sport. Others use force to arrest and detain people, search people as they trickle out of homeless shelters, trash the few belongings that people own, or even use deadly force to clear them out.

In D.C., camping out on the street is illegal, but police aren’t sticklers about enforcing the ordinance.

“Frankly, the police are the least of their concerns,” Staudenmaier said of the homeless population living in encampments throughout the city. “Most of [the police], their attitude is, unless someone’s breaking the law — and even if somebody’s set up a so-called temporary abode, because that’s the one area that’s actually illegal in DC — they take a kind of hands-off approach to it.”  An encampment can be made up of a large group of people or a single person who’s stationed in one location for an extended period of time, Staudenmaier says. When the city learns about a particular site, officials give occupants 14 days notice to leave. Following city protocol, outreach workers are sent to talk to occupants and get them to leave voluntarily. But if people are still there on the day of a sweep, officials will throw their belongings, including clothing, bikes, and tents, in the garbage.

“Police are there to be peacekeepers, but they do not get involved in actually clearing the stuff,” Staudenmaier said. Homeless people can’t be arrested for violating the temporary abode ordinance alone. But they are subject to fines they can’t pay, which can eventually turn into arrest warrants.

A person tucked away in an alley by the Howard Theater CREDIT: Thinkprogress/alejandro davila fragoso
A person tucked away in an alley by the Howard Theater CREDIT: Thinkprogress/alejandro davila fragoso

“In D.C., this is not a police issue,” said Staudenmaier. “It’s coming from the mayor’s office.”

Mayor Muriel Bowser’s (D) administration disputed that portrayal. These “public space clean-ups” “are not ‘sweeps’, but rather a protocol to dispose of un-claimed or unaccounted for property and debris found on public space and to conduct outreach to displaced persons,” Chief of Staff Rachel Molly Joseph, who works for Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Brenda Donald, told ThinkProgress by email.

Sites that pose a “security, health, or safety risk, and/or interferes with community use of public space” are identified, at which point the deputy mayor’s office mobilizes city workers from multiple civilian departments as well as the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) to alert occupants that a clean-up is coming. City employees then provide outreach services to help people store their property and take them to a temporary shelter, Donald’s office said. Workers only throw out trash and debris that are left at the site.

“It is our duty to provide resources to shelter, pathways to housing and access to behavioral health services,” the office said. “We do our very best to engage persons experiencing homelessness and to assist them in accessing services offered by the District. Cleaning up these public space areas is not about criminalizing homelessness. It is about working to connect people, in a meaningful way, with the available resources and assistance needed to overcome barriers.”

Staudenmaier says the process is much more destructive. Currently, there aren’t enough shelters to house everyone living on the streets, so it’s impossible to provide temporary shelter for everyone kicked out of a camp.

It causes a lot of anxiety for people who are outside and feel like they don’t really have a lot of other options.

“Their position is, ‘We don’t want people sleeping on the streets. We’re so compassionate. We can’t have that happening, it’s a terrible thing.’ But I don’t think it’s coming from a place of compassion,” she said. “I think they’re doing it because homeless encampments are a clear indication that you’ve got a homeless problem in D.C. I think it’s done more to appease outraged neighbors.”

Kurt Runge, a worker at Miriam’s Kitchen, an organization that provides temporary shelter and healthy meals, said the city has ramped up its scrutiny of homeless encampments over the past year.

“I recognize that this is a pretty complicated issue. There are times when encampments, maybe for safety reasons or other reasons, do need to be cleared,” he told ThinkProgress. “That said, there’s always been encampments that have been cleared from one administration to the next, but I think those picked up a lot more this past year during the winter, and then going forward during this year.”

Miriam’s Kitchen is located close to Camp Watergate, so Runge heard some of the residents’ concerns firsthand.

“Sometimes it’s just really confusing for folks to hear a lot of different messages about ‘We’re coming this day. We’re not coming. All your stuff is gonna be taken. It’s not gonna be taken,’” he said. “It causes a lot anxiety for people who are outside and feel like they don’t really have a lot of other options. Communication-wise, that encampment in particular was a little stressful for folks.”

A man sleeping on the streets in D.C,’s Petworth neighborhood CREDIT: Thinkprogress/alejandro davila fragoso
A man sleeping on the streets in D.C,’s Petworth neighborhood CREDIT: Thinkprogress/alejandro davila fragoso

If someone isn’t standing next to their belongings, it can be difficult for city workers to determine what’s trash and what’s valuable to a resident, Runge said.

But Staudenmaier believes a lot of objects that are thrown away during a clearing have obvious value.

“The government doesn’t have the right to seize someone’s property and destroy it just because they’ve done something illegal,” she explained. “The analogy I use is: If you give someone a parking ticket because their car is parked illegally, the city can’t come in and destroy your car. The same thing applies with people sleeping outside.”