Aldo Richardson, 61, better known as “Al,” signed up to serve in the Army Reserves shortly after high school. Born in East St. Louis, Missouri, but raised in Chicago, he attended Carpenter Elementary School and William H. Wells High School, where he received his GED.
After his time in the military, Richardson jumped from one position to the next; he ultimately found himself without a job or money. He then decided to borrow money to buy a one-way ticket to D.C. in hopes of better employment prospects. After moving to the District, Richardson worked in a restaurant while staying in shelters but could not maintain the position.
“I left the shelter and was sleeping on the ground,” Richardson said. “One day, a young lady was on a bike; she stopped and said, ‘I saw you sleeping on the ground. Would you be interested in a tent?'”
He accepted the tent. For the last two decades, Richardson said he has been living on the streets of D.C., going through roughly 15 to 20 different tents throughout that time.
“I have been homeless for a long time, and one day I would like to begin living again, but it has not been easy,” Richardson said. “Every day is a new challenge for me. I’m starting to put my life back together again, with the help of the Lord.”
As of January 2020, there are about 37,252 veterans experiencing homelessness in the U.S., according to the 2020 annual report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is 8% of all homeless adults. In D.C., there were 297 homeless veterans during this year’s Point-in-Time Count in January.
Richardson lived under a bridge on K Street NE in 2019. However, the city decided to close the underpass in January 2020. The closure forced Richardson to set camp outside of the underpass against the brick wall near the corner of K and 2nd Streets NE. It would not be the last time Richardson experienced being relocated.
Eventually, Richardson moved to Allen Park on New Jersey Avenue and O Street NW, he said a worker from Pathways to Housing D.C., a nonprofit outreach program partially funded by the city, recommended that he move the park where many other people were already living.
This summer, D.C. created a pilot program to close four of the largest encampments in the District. In addition to closing the sites, the Coordinated Assistance and Resources for Encampments program provides some residents temporary housing for a year while connecting with more permanent options.
Mayor Muriel Bowser said the encampments would be “eliminated,” not moved nor allowed to return, during a Sept. 27 press conference when responding to questions from ABC7 reporter Sam Ford. Bowser said residents would be given access to “appropriate housing. For some, that will mean shelter. And for others, that’s some kind of supportive housing.”
Encampments in two underpasses on L and M street in the NoMa area — next to the K Street where tents were permanently removed in 2020 — were the first locations cleared out through the pilot program in early October.
The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services said it conducted 90 days of canvassing and outreach to residents of the NoMa encampments, giving the people they met until Aug. 29 to apply for housing through the new program.
Following the NoMa closure, city workers placed concrete “Jersey barriers” to the sidewalks where the tents had been.
Many who did not receive housing moved to the small park at O St. and New Jersey Ave. NW. Richardson said he saw many new faces at the park immediately following the closures in NoMa. Like Richardson, caseworkers and mutual aid volunteers suggested the move. While living at NJ and O Street encampment, Richardson said he noticed others moving into the park after the NoMa closure in early October.
Later that month, Richardson received a call from his caseworker saying he qualified for temporary housing. Due to Richardson’s veteran status, he qualified for HUD-VASH. The program collaborates with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs, providing veterans with vouchers.
He was able to move into a Pandemic Emergency Program (PEP-V) hotel.
“It seems like I am being processed and promoted simultaneously, which is good. I think that is going to lead to bigger and better things,” Richardson said.
During the pandemic, the city contracted four hotels to provide rooms where homeless people with underlying health conditions could stay socially distanced — instead of typical “congregate” shelters.
However, today PEP-V is now being used as more of a halfway house for many like Richardson. He sees the hotel as a step towards getting permanent housing, and he can do nothing else but wait to see if he is matched to housing. Even though there is some uncertainty, Richardson feels relieved to be off the streets after 20 plus years.
“You can fall down, but you can get back up and start all over again,” Richardson said. “It does not matter what age you are or what your condition is as long as you still have breath in your body. You can get a second chance in life,” Richardson said.
When Richardson left the encampment at New Jersey and O, roughly 50 people were living there.
Although the official count of people experiencing homelessness has decreased in recent years, people living in tents like Richardson have increased. Similar to the increase of individuals living in tents, so has the number of encampment cleanups prior to COVID-19. While “full cleanups” were reduced during the first year of the pandemic, the District resumed frequent sweeps in late spring.
Criticism of the pilot program increased when the city cleared out the NoMa encampment. A man was accidentally lifted by heavy machinery while still in his tent and then transported to the hospital.
D.C. Council held a public roundtable to review the program on Nov. 9 with ANC members, council members, mutual aid groups, and nonprofits, discussing the program’s flaws and potential. The roundtable lasted 7 hours, but before the meeting, DMHHS released a report before the roundtable hearing, showing the data from the pilot program thus far. Under the NoMa encampment closure, 15 individuals who either have a lease in progress or are searching for housing were temporarily moved into the same program Richardson was, PEP-V.
Some key discussion topics at the roundtable included criticizing the pilot program’s speed, the criminalization of homeless people, and the possibility of pausing evictions as hypothermia season arrives. The District activated its first hypothermia alert of the season on Nov. 15, when the temperatures were predicted to fall below freezing before midnight.
DMHHS will reassess at the end of the encampment pilot program. They will then decide whether or not to make it a District-wide initiative.
“This trial will inform our thinking on whether this approach is an effective method for immediately housing more than 300 residents who live in encampments on the streets,” Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Wayne Turnage said during the hearing. “This is a housing first model, not an eviction program.”
The city will be clearing out the park at New Jersey and O Street on Dec. 2, after which the area will be closed for renovations. The original date was pushed back two weeks, allowing case managers additional time to help find temporary housing for those still left at the park.
In October, 32 out of 48 residents were on the “by-name lists” used by the pilot program to track who will receive temporary housing, leaving 16 off the list, according to information shared by DMHHS at an ANC 6E meeting.
“The original date of site closure has been extended to afford the provider with the additional time needed to adequately conduct the housing navigation process for the by-name-list residents present, while also assisting the non-BNL residents with non-pilot related service connection to eligible services,” according to an email from Jamal Weldon, DMHHS Program Manager.
On Monday, Nov. 29, city workers will begin to put fencing around the perimeter of the New Jersey and O Street park.
For the past month, caseworkers from Pathways have been helping to move residents slowly into temporary housing. The shape of the square park remains outlined by tents. As of Nov. 16 there are 36 tents present at the park, according to DMHHS.
The city’s hypothermia hotline may be called to request transportation to shelter or blankets if you do not want to enter a shelter: 202-399-7093.