This article is part of our 2021 contribution to the DC Homeless Crisis Reporting Project in collaboration with other local newsrooms. The collective works will be published throughout the day at DCHomelessCrisis.press.
Mere hours after workers finished laying sod on the last Friday of September, elected officials, government staff, and D.C. residents attended a reopening ceremony for Franklin Park. The five-acre downtown park was remade from the ground up to improve stormwater infrastructure, revitalize tree health, and provide facilities that better serve an “urban park.” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, and DowntownDC Business Improvement District (BID) president Neil Albert spoke. Around the park, people were using the outdoor seating to eat lunch on a warm day.
The renovation is notable for many reasons. The National Park Service property will now be managed cooperatively by the BID, D.C. government agencies, and NPS. The new park governance model required Congressional legislation, a decade of design review from local and federal government, and $21 million invested from the District budget. Albert from the BID announced at the opening that Amazon signed on as Franklin Park’s “greenery and beautification” sponsor. Albert said the company, through the DowntownDC Foundation, will support groundskeeping and “additional community programming.”
But some D.C. residents are not happy with the renovation. Bowser’s remarks were interrupted by Chandra Brown, an unhoused woman, who sat in the front row next to the VIP guests. While the mayor was speaking, Brown’s demeanor changed and she began to yell. The interjection did not appear to be a reaction to any specific comment.
“Black Lives Matter [is] going to Hell!” yelled Brown. She commented on her struggle to get help for housing, healthcare, and freedom from police harassment, but after a few sentences, she was whisked out of her seat by a woman who identified herself as a fellow D.C. resident.
Brown, who told Street Sense Media she is a mother of three and a participant in restorative justice workshops, said she is homeless and was recently released from jail. The two women sat together at a nearby fountain, where Brown expressed frustration at Bowser and D.C. government agencies. With composed urgency, she criticized the mayor’s $11 million special funding request for more police officers. “That money was supposed to go to us,” Brown said. (A smaller version of the mayor’s request was approved by the D.C. Council in August.)
“Do you want to get a room or not? Do you want clothes or not?” the housed resident talking with Brown said. The tone was stern, like a parent addressing their tantrum-throwing child: do you want to be constructive or make a mess?
“I need everything…Put a cellphone in my hand,” said Brown, who didn’t have one to use and was worried service providers couldn’t reach her.
“Then, let’s get some business taken care of,” the housed resident said, after which several D.C. government staff came over. They walked Brown to a shaded area on the far edge of the park, away from the ceremony where speeches continued.
For at least half an hour, Saudia Jenkins, D.C.’s community outreach liaison for Ward 7, led Brown through what appeared to be an intake form. Jenkins asked Brown, who goes by “Mango,” basic identity information, questions about what services she needed and whether she was willing to commit to addiction and mental health treatment.
Brown said she had done mental and behavioral health therapy, sharing from memory the names, addresses, and phone numbers of several D.C. organizations where she had accessed services and treatment. She spent the conversation distressed when recounting her past traumas but collected herself to answer each of the questions Jenkins posed.
Brown said that one personal crisis after another had landed her in one of the many encampments the Bowser administration has been trying to remove. She had been living in D.C. General family shelter several years ago but her children were taken away from her. No longer considered a family by D.C. government, she moved into her car, which was eventually stolen. So, she moved into an encampment where she was vulnerable to assault. She tried sex work for income but was arrested despite the Bowser’s administration’s stated preference to not criminalize sex workers. Brown said she was just released from D.C. Jail this week.
Some residents and businesses near homeless encampments have urged the removal of tents and other belongings.
“They threw away my tent. They threw away my tent in Dupont Circle,” Brown said, referring to MPD’s actions during her arrest.“I’ve been homeless for two years because [Bowser] made that Black Lives Matter bullshit up.”
“I have three kids. At the end of the day, we need a 6-bedroom house,” Brown said. “Since they took them away, I have not been OK. We’ve been working on reunification for 10 f***ing years.”
“I know. I understand that,” the housed resident who got Brown from her seat at the press conference said. “You’re our sister now,” the resident said. Jenkins, the government staffer, interrupted the housed resident and asked her to allow the intake form to get filled out. Jenkins said that all the necessary help is only possible via that form.
Brown went on to say she had lost her EBT food assistance card with $500 of benefits loaded, or that someone had stolen it.
“Shoot cameras, not guns. Make B.S. get off the street,” Brown said to me as I was taking photos. She asked me to stay with them when I said I was a reporter from Street Sense Media. She said the slogan came from a mentorship effort she organized and runs today to teach at-risk youth media production skills “as a coping mechanism to survive in the District.”
When Brown saw my audio recorder, she asked me to capture the following rap:
I want to help the Earth, wish up with a stutter burst;
It’s not too late;
So everybody over 8, help the community;
And show a little unity;
Of being kind;
Using joy, love, peace of mind;
Is one of the things we need to do;
If you see trash, pick up one or two;
And that’s one solved problem;
Young birds, you have to start using condoms;
Look out for using, and no child abusing.
Jenkins’s team at the Mayor’s Office of Community Relations and Services did not respond to follow-up questions about where Chandra Brown ended up staying that night and whether she is getting new connections to benefits. The D.C. Housing Authority did not respond to requests to confirm Brown’s claim that she has a federal housing voucher.
Leaving Franklin Park, with crowds from the ceremony nearly gone, a park hospitality employee said that the DowntownDC BID is “gonna keep the drama out” of the new Franklin Park, emphasizing that three hospitality staff and two maintenance staff will be on-site during the park’s open hours.
Franklin Park is open from dawn to dusk, with overnight security, according to the BID. Those employees are supposed to refer homeless residents to the nearby Downtown Day Services Center. Approximately 20 people experiencing homelessness were forced to move out of the park when it was closed for redevelopment and groups that used the park as a place to distribute resources and donation for the homeless community were forced to move around the corner to a block of Vermont Ave, Street Sense Media previously reported.
Tents will not be tolerated in the reopened park.
“You kick us out of this park and you’re going to disperse us to where?” asked George Rivera, who said he’d been homeless for roughly 40 years, when the park was closed. “At least here, there’s a certain amount of safety.”