DC Permanently Removing NoMA Underpass Encampments

Pilot Project to House Residents in Three Encampments Deemed "Health and Safety Risk"

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Andre Juste has lived under the L Street underpass for 3 years. He wears a neck brace after a cycling accident near K & 2nd Streets, NE. Photo: E.O'Gorek/CCN

Andre Juste is sorting through his things. For the past three years, he’s lived under the L Street, NE overpass. But on Tuesday, Sept. 7 the city posted signs announcing that both NoMA encampments—those under the L and M Street NE overpasses—will be cleared Sept. 20. After that, tents will be forbidden in the area.

Juste said the signs were the first he had heard about the change. Since then, he has spoken to city case workers. They tell him they are looking to place him in permanent supportive housing (PSH) by Sept. 20, an acceleration of a process that can take up to nine months.

He’d love to be housed, he said. In the three years he’s lived under the overpass, his tent has been burnt and slashed, and he has been assaulted multiple times.

In the last year, he said, seven people have died in the L Street encampments alone, three of them homicides. He said he thinks that is why the city is taking action. “They’re saying, like, ‘OK, there’s too much going on, too many people have died’, so they’re going to shut this down,” Juste said.

But Juste, 41, does not see housing as a guarantee. He won’t say sorting his things is preparation to go into housing—he’s just getting ready for the next thing. “I’m always on the move,” the Florida native said. “They say they’re going to give us a place to go, but I don’t know. I’m just waiting to see if they do what they say they’re going to do.”

A man sits outside his home on the M Street NE underpass, Sept. 10, 2021

Pilot Program

The NoMA encampment action slated for Sept. 20 is similar to one taken in January 2020, when the District permanently removed the K Street encampments just to the south and posted signs declaring the area a “pedestrian safe-passage zone.” The change allows DMHHS and District agencies to remove items from the site within a day—without the 2-week notice otherwise required for a disposition.

But this time, the program includes intensive case management and expedited access to permanent supportive housing (PSH), including an inside place to stay and supportive services. Critics say the effort criminalizes homelessness, and point to the lack of public notice, citing concern with the speed of program implementation.

Both the rehousing and the permanent tent removal slated for Sept. 20 are part of a pilot project taking place in three locations, according to Jessica Smith, Deputy Chief of Staff in the office of the Deputy Mayor Of Health and Human Services (DMHHS), who spoke at the Sept. 9 meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6C. The three pilot areas are the NoMA encampments at L and M Street, Allen Park at O Street and New Jersey Avenue NW and the area of E Street near 21st and 22nd Streets NW.

Smith said that DMHHS focused on these three encampments because of the risk they pose to health and safety of both those living and traveling through the area. The NoMA encampment is one of the largest of the approximately 140 in the District, Smith said, and one of the more transient.

The pilot project, initiated Sept. 1, dedicates increased resources to the Department of Behavioral Health and other support workers such as Pathways to Housing DC. This allows them to make daily visits to connect those living in pilot locations with social services including addiction and behavioral health services.

The pilot also accelerates access to PSH, connecting residents with housing and moving them in over a matter of days rather than the typical application period of 6 to 9 months. Smith said that a little more than 90 percent of those living in the pilot areas are eligible for the program. The goal is to match them to a place and move them before Sept. 20. If an individual does not want to be housed, she said, outreach workers will help them relocate.

“Feels Like A Bait and Switch”

At the Sept. 9th meeting of ANC 6C, 6C06 Commissioner Drew Courtney told Smith he was pleased with the effort to find supportive housing, but that he was concerned that the creation of a no-tent zone criminalizes homelessness.

“It feels like a bit of a bait and switch,” he said. “I’m concerned with how this went through; I’m concerned that there has not been public notice; I’m really concerned that this doesn’t represent the real housing-first answer that we’ve been looking for, and that we haven’t exhausted all the possibilities to figure out ways in order to ensure a chance for people to pass smoothly along the sidewalks that doesn’t involve criminalization.”

Smith pushed back, arguing that the effort was based on the idea of housing first. “Housing first is literally saying that you first and foremost address people’s housing needs,” she said. “We’re not saying, we’re shutting down the underpass, good luck, hope you find another place to go. We’re saying: you can’t stay here, but you do get to expeditiously move in to housing first, before we address all the other needs that you may need assistance with.”

Efforts made over the years to find a way to facilitate passage through the encampments floundered, Smith said, because of the transient nature unique to the NoMA encampments. A group will buy in to this idea, she said, but then will move on and the agreement will have to be re-established.

Some commissioners expressed doubt about the transient nature of the encampment and concern with the lack of public notice, noting that Smith’s appearance was the first information they had received about the program.

However, Commissioner Joel Kelty (6C05) acknowledged that there were many criticisms of the effort, but added that many of his constituents will be thrilled to hear about this. “We on the ANC relayed our constituent’s concerns to the District government, to you,” he told Smith, “and asked you to come up with a solution. That’s what they’re trying to do,” he said.

Juste is hoping that the program will pan out for him. He’d love to live along K Street, and be connected there to the mental health services that he now travels to receive. He’s lived in the District for nearly eight years now, and he said it is a good place to live “on the outside.”

But given the choice, Juste said, he’ll put his trust in God and wait to see what happens Sept. 20. “I have a lot of faith,” he said. “Whether it happens or not, I still have faith. That’s the only thing that will keep you going.”

Additional comment requested from DMHHS was not received at the time of publication. This story will be updated on receipt.