We must have compassion for those who are homeless and there are many reasons for someone being homeless. Each homeless person or family must be dealt with as a person, not just a number.
When Mayor Bowser came into office she committed to closing D.C. General, a huge shelter for homeless families. She proposed smaller housing in each wards of the District. Some wards fought back but the mayor stood her ground and today those smaller shelters are up and by all indications functioning well.
But that is only one problem solved and there are many more. We will have to deal with the results of the pandemic, which in the near future could see many families losing their homes and prepare for that. Then there is the more perplexing issue of homeless people living on the streets in tents. This is where the city is really stumbling.
I recently followed the case of the tent that suddenly appeared on the northeast corner of 17th and Q streets, N.W. A huge REI tent. It was tethered to parking meters and to a tree box. Overnight a couple moved in. My initial reaction was it is outrageous for someone to be able to just pitch a tent on a city street anywhere they wanted. So I contacted the mayor’s chief of staff to report the tent and sent along a picture on Feb. 21. He responded agreeing it seemed ridiculous when there were resources in the city to put a roof over their heads. He suggested I reach out to the Community Relations Specialist for Ward 2, which I did and he responded quickly on a Sunday. But then the buck got passed from person to person and not until March 17 was someone out to take the tent down and pack up the remaining items in it after it had clearly been abandoned for over two weeks. The falling down tent and items in it were left on the street and still there on March 20.
No one in the city would seem to take full responsibility in a comprehensive way and I got different answers from the encampment group about whether these people were offered housing, whether they took it, and who was responsible for cleaning up the garbage in and around the tent, which was attracting rats. Who was responsible once the tent started collapsing and leaning into the parking lane? I had spoken to the gentleman who first occupied the tent who was clearly in need of some mental health counseling. He claimed he was from some other planet, I forgot its name, and told me his name was Zypher. I was not there the morning he was screaming at people passing by. I since found out there is a lawsuit against the city from an organization helping the homeless and supposedly it revolves around the city’s responsibility for protecting the possessions of the people in the tents once they finally take them down. Clearly that should not be a problem as the city could take a picture of the property in the tent and then store it.
I have gotten two stories from the city. One is the tent was simply abandoned; another was the couple found housing. Then I was told the encampment group can only get to each tent site about once a week to clear away the garbage as they only have three people assigned to the group. Now in Dupont there are tents all over the area. The city has upgraded one encampment in front of the Safeway on 17th and Corcoran by placing a toilet and hand washing stand.
My question to the D.C. Council and the mayor is will you use some of the over $2 billion the city will receive from the most recent Biden/Harris stimulus bill to deal with the issue of the homeless? Will more housing vouchers become available and will the city look at producing housing for single people with all the additional services they will need for support? Services to include mental health services, employment services, life classes, which could include cooking and cleaning for those who need them. Because of the pandemic any person moved into housing should be vaccinated to protect them and others who live there. As we move toward a more normal life for all this issue must be dealt with. We cannot be the city that invites anyone with a tent to place it on any city street and then say there is nothing the city can do about it. We must do more for homeless people and in the long run that helps the community as a whole.
Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.