Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Last week, officials announced they would shut down a large homeless encampment across the street from CityLab’s D.C. office. Where all those residents will end up is still unclear.
Just a week ago, scores of tents lined the grassy juncture near a freeway and an urban national park that’s right across the street from CityLab’s offices in Washington, D.C. Dozens of people experiencing homelessness, possibly as many as 50, lived at the campsite, some of them for more than a year.
Officials decided last week that the tent city at K and 26th streets NW—dubbed “Camp Watergate” by homeless advocates for its proximity to the Watergate complex—was a nuisance. Brenda Donald, deputy mayor for the D.C. Department of Health and Human Services, explained to reporters on Friday that the city had deemed the campsite unsafe and unsanitary (and illegal). Further, D.C. Water was preparing to launch a 90-day infrastructure improvement project that would require construction on the site.
So Camp Watergate had to go, by Tuesday, and by force if necessary. Soreta Waldeck von Bolow, a woman who says she has lived in a tent on the grounds for the past 6 months, says that the city removed about a dozen tents on Tuesday. “They brought a shelter van, but I don’t want a shelter,” she says.
On Wednesday morning, the city made good on its final notice. Many people were still holding out in Camp Watergate, refusing to be transferred to D.C.’s notorious shelter system. What happened in the end, however, was more complicated than an eviction. Many if not most of the holdouts found placement in D.C.’s supportive housing system, according to Gunther Stern, executive director for the Georgetown Ministry Center, which has provided services for the camp.
“They couldn’t just boot that many people out of a space with nowhere to go,” Stern says.
Even now, a handful of tents remain. Still, that anyone at all left the campsite for supporting housing is unexpected. Street Sense, the local homeless newspaper, has reported that people living in the Camp Watergate tent city would not likely meet the eligibility requirements for permanent supportive housing.
“Unless a camper has been homeless for several years and has a debilitating physical or mental disability and has another stackable vulnerability such as old age—none of these assessments would turn into housing placements before the Monday cleanup,” Street Sense reported.
Officials at the Health and Human Services did not respond on Wednesday for a request for comment. It’s unclear how homeless people who remained at the tent city would have been fast-tracked to the front of the waiting list for permanent supportive housing.
“The thing that people worry about,” Stern says, “is these guys getting houses means that other people who are higher on the list elsewhere aren’t getting it.”
Advocates and officials have both said that the city was looking for alternatives to the shelter network. Donald told reporters on Friday that the city had been working for months, even up to this week, to secure housing options for the tent city residents who would be displaced.
Marina Streznewski, president of the Foggy Bottom Association—the neighborhood where the tent city is located—said that most of the community supported finding a solution for every individual experiencing homelessness before striking the tent city. Her group has worked to put out more trash cans throughout the neighborhood and looked at options for restroom facilities. Some just want it to go away, though, she says.
“The permanent residents of the neighborhood are of two kinds. One has actually said to me, ‘I pay too much in taxes to have to look at this,’” Streznewski says. “Then there are others who say, ‘I think we should give everybody tents and port-o-potties until they find permanent housing.’”
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser recently unveiled a strategic goal to make homelessness “rare, brief, and non-recurring” by 2020. Toward that end, Health and Human Services has embraced a Housing First approach to alleviating homelessness, most notably through La Casa, a new (and architecturally swank) permanent supportive housing building in Columbia Heights.
A survey conducted in January by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments found that the region's formerly homeless population numbers more than 14,200 people—an improvement of 2,600 re-housed persons over the previous year. Yet at the same time, with the year winding down and the city’s homeless population set to surpass the record high of 4,000 residents last year, housing options are not growing more obvious and affordable.
“I don’t think anyone knows what’s happening next,” Stern says. “I don’t think the city knows what’s happening next.”