Intensive Outreach, Minimal Communication Leaves Homeless Encampment In The Dark.

By Eric Falquero and Olivia Street Newspaper in DC)Aldridge (

Provided by Street Sense

On the morning of Friday, November 20 an ultimatum loomed over residents of the Foggy Bottom tent encampment just down Rock Creek Parkway from the Watergate complex at 27th Street N.W.

            Two days earlier, waterproof notices had been posted around Camp Watergate, which included several satellite tent-clusters. The notices were attached to many tents individually, as well as tacked on top of the metal “general clean-up” signs that had been installed at the beginning of the month by the District Department of Transportation (DDOT).

    Homeless people have been sleeping under the freeway overpass for years. But only in the past several months has there been a ready supply of tent donations from a local charity to keep them safe and make them visible. Two to three tents could be seen on-site via Google Street view’s capture of the area in July. More than twenty tents now made-up the robust community.

       The Department of Public Works (DPW) would be disposing of personal belongings still in public space at 2 p.m. that afternoon, tents and all. Only ID’s, photographs and other items of obvious value would be stored temporarily for pickup.

    If this warning proved true, campers would have to find a new place to sleep. That uncertainty had been part of the problem all week. After cleanup notices were posted at the end of October, campers believed only trash and debris would be cleaned up after the notice period: a semi-regular occurrence. They were informed otherwise recently. But after much confusion on Monday November 16, the announced eviction never came to pass. Rumors flew through the camp Watergate community all week: everyone was getting apartments before anyone was evicted; this was federal land and D.C. didn’t have jurisdiction; if anyone’s tent was touched against their will, they could file assault charges. All three those statements are false.

    But there was no timeline, memo or speech given to residents regarding the camp’s fate. And city workers were expressly forbidden from speaking to the press, including the supervisor on site. The rumor mill was the only consistent source of information.

  It’s like trying to sleep next to a wrecking ball, and you don’t know when it’s going to drop,” described john, a camp resident.

Final 2-day eviction notices appeared Wednesday November 18. And no visible progress on anyone’s housing placement was seen until the next morning, with the exception of a couple that had left with promise of transport van to leave their tents unaccompanied and go look at potential housing placements.

   When Deputy Mayor for Health and Hudman Services Brenda Donald arrived shortly after 2 p.m. Friday, she held a brief private discussion with DPW staff before addressing the media. The cleanup and eviction would proceed as planned. She also announced that construction on a fence surrounding the area would begin by the day’s end, this was the day’s end, and this was the first step in a larger construction project. 

     DPW staff began posting white eviction notices on camper’s tents and belonging’s. Some defiantly tore the notices into pieces and refused to move.

       Tent’s mattresses, camp chairs and bags, the sanitation swallowed most everything whole.

         “At one point the guys from DPW took two grocery carts that…well I guess they didn’t belong to at least one of the Latino guys.  They took them and put them in the back of the truck and crushed them,” described Marina Strenznewski, Foggy Bottom Association President. “First of all, those things start at $250 a piece-what a waste. … There’s a mechanism to keep them and give them back. But also, grocery carts are for some of these people so vitally important. I never thought that I would grieve for grocery carts.”

        While the carts were being crushed, Streznewski watched one of the guys yell “you are devils, you are devils you are devils!” to the DPW workers.

           “Maybe one of the most heartbreaking things about today was all the government workers who told me they didn’t want to do it, they were under orders,” tweeted activist Diana Pillsbury.

      DPW loaded the belongings of those who did not resist into blue storage bins, promising they could retrieve them when ready. These campers were left staring at yellow grass where their tents had been, wondering where they would go that night.

        A fence was constructed the next day in the field where the camp had stood. Several tents and campers still held out under the freeway.

          The fenced –off area will be used to facilitate cleanup and inspection for a portion of the upper Potomac Interception Relief Sewer adjacent to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. This maintenance has been needed since February and must occur before March 31,2016, according to John Lisle, a spokesperson man for DC Water. Permitting for the project began before initial cleanup notices were posted in October. It is linked to a backup in May 2014 that caused sewage overflow on the National Crescent Trail. No construction or digging will occur at the Camp Watergate site. It will be used as a staging area for physical work and equipment storage in relation to the Kennedy Center maintenance.

      “I did ask the Deputy Mayor to not do a blanket closure of these encampments across the city. As Miriam’s Kitchen explained to me: why is she spending all these resource’s doing that when she could be spending the same time and money and effort into giving people the services they need to get on their feet again?’ Councilmember David Grosso told Street Sense. Grosso was the only council member to stop by Camp Watergate during the week of the eviction. “They say that it’s pretty well proven that if you want to help someone when hypothermia season’s coming-don’t kick em’ out of those encampments. Those encampments are actually a safer place for them than wandering the streets and being unable to find them. “At least with the encampment you know where to target every single day with the vans and the better clothing and blankets that they need. You can actually care for them. If you kick em” out of the encampment, they’re scattered.” Outreach work with camp residents continues. According to Department of human Services spokeswoman Dora Taylor, there are 25 individuals targeted for homeless services. As of Tuesday December 1, 9 have selected and been placed into permanent housing already.

     For confidentiality reasons, DHS could not comment on specific camp residents.

      All media inquiries regarding the camp are being coordinate through Deputy Mayor Brenda Donald’s Office. Aside from housing placement data, questions regarding shelter conditions, whether or not tents should be confiscated during hypothermia season, if/when other city encampments would be handled similarly went unanswered.

        “He’s telling us about the continental breakfast and how you can take food up to your room from there. And ya know, I’m glad for him, I’m glad he has a place to stay,” former camp resident Stefanie Abbott said when she learned about several campers that were being housed in motel rooms while they awaited inspection. “But (DHS) knows our situation. We’re still out here and my husband is having problems walking.

         Part of the city’s 5-year plan to end homelessness and FY2016 funds include revamping the city’s emergency shelter system and expanding permanent supportive housing

          “They’ve got to be able to transform the system while you’re providing services,” Grosso said.

            As Street Sense went to press, it was discovered notices had been posted declaring that another cleanup would occur at the Watergate encampment site at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, December 2. 

Copyright Cleveland Street Chronicle December 2015 all rights reserved