DC closes long-standing downtown encampment

Gigi Dovonou sitting on a fence on G Street, waiting for the encampment closure to begin. Photo by Athiyah Azeem

Gigi Dovonou sitting on a fence on G Street, waiting for the encampment closure to begin. Photo by Athiyah Azeem

When Gigi Dovonou moved into the encampment in front of the Church of the Epiphany and Street Sense Media, he believed he was getting his life back. In a tent, he was sheltered from the elements and could rely on support from fellow encampment residents. 

So when the The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services (DMHHS) closed the encampment on G Street on April 27, he felt hurt and lost.

“I thought my pain and my sorrow was over, that I had a little bit of relief,” Dovonou told Street Sense. “I thought my life is about to change, but now I gotta go back to the start.”

DMHHS closed the four-year old encampment due to environmental and safety concerns, according to the sign posted at the site. G Street businesses complained about littering and public urination and defecation near the encampment, Rev. Glenna Huber, rector of the Church of the Epiphany, said. But the DowntownDC Business Improvement District (BID), the Church of the Epiphany and Street Sense Media did not request DMHHS to clear the encampment. The church and Street Sense Media, which is separate from its independent newsroom, opposed DMHHS clearing the encampment without ensuring residents had safe places to go. The closure displaced seven residents. Only two moved into shelter. 

According to Huber, the encampment along G Street has existed since 2019, but its residents have changed over time. At the time of the closure, four residents were artists and vendors with Street Sense Media. Dovonou joined the encampment in January when Nikila Smith, another artist and vendor, left to move into a women’s shelter. She offered Dovonou her tent. 

“This is the first time I got angry in eight months,” said Smith, as she helped residents pack up their belongings and move before the clearing began. She saw DMHHS workers throw away her former tent. 

DMHHS stored two bags of Dovonou’s belongings upon request, but threw most of his and other residents’ tents and belongings into a garbage truck. 

Huber and Darick Brown, the director of programs and a case manager at Street Sense Media, asked Pathways to Housing DC to help house encampment residents in April 2022. The District contracts Pathways, a housing services nonprofit, to provide outreach services to people experiencing homelessness in parts of Wards 2, 5 and 6, including the G Street encampment. 

While Pathways connected some residents like Smith to shelter beds months before the clearing, seven residents remained on the clearing date. Only Dovonou and Mars, another resident, moved into shelter after the clearing. Other encampment residents either remained on the street or are staying at a friend’s place.

Dovonou helped Mars after the National Park Service cleared his old encampment in McPherson Square. (Mars is using an alias to protect his identity and safety while experiencing homelessness.) Mars moved into the encampment in front of the church and joined Street Sense Media’s vendor program. Now, he feels disgruntled and angry at having to move again. 

“When you’re homeless and you only have a tent, that’s your home,” Mars said. “They shouldn’t be able to move you out of your house when you buy one, and they shouldn’t be able to move you out of your tent when you don’t have any other place to put it up.” 

Living on G Street

Both Dovonou and Mars say living in tents outside of the church and Street Sense Media was relatively peaceful. 

“I think the church had our back, since it was right behind us, and Street Sense was right there. So people pretty much left us alone,” Mars said.

Before living in a tent, Dovonou often was not able to get enough sleep. He used to sleep on the ground outside Martin Luther King Jr. Library, where the sounds of people and vehicles driving past disturbed his rest. But he also did not want to go back to a shelter — the last time he stayed at 801 East Men’s Shelter, he witnessed people fight, which made him feel unsafe.

Multiple residents at the G Street encampment said they do not stay in shelters due to a lack of safety and cleanliness. Shelters in D.C. also have more rigorous rules on when residents can come and go, and limit the number of belongings they can carry inside, which can erode a sense of autonomy. 

Dovonou joined Street Sense Media’s vendor program in November and began staying in the church’s hypothermia overnight shelter, run by D.C.’s  Department of Human Services (DHS), when it opened that same month. 

Through the winter, Dovonou spent the days in his tent, which he turned into a home. He said he kept his area clean, and used it to get some peace and quiet while reading books or working on his future housing goals. He hung out with Street Sense Media vendors, who would frequently walk past to access the company’s offices. When the hypothermia shelter program ended on March 31, Dovonou began spending nights in his tent.

There were some hiccups — Mars and Dovonou say they witnessed a person that slept across the street throw things, potentially human excrement, on the church’s property. Mars and Dovonou would also hear a couple living in a tent nearby argue through the night. 

Dovonou wondered if the complaints businessess made about the encampment could have been avoided if the residents kept the area clean and quiet.

“People don’t like to see homeless people already,” Dovonou said. “You got to show how you take care of your house when you’re on the street.”

However, Umi, who declined to giver her last name and frequently helps encampment residents pack their belongings during encampment clearings, says the appearance of tents alone drives complaints and encampment closures. 

“Washington, D.C. seems to be about hiding homelessness instead of alleviating it,” Umi said, as she helped an encampment resident move her belongings. “All they do is move people, and we have to move her to another encampment.”

Complaints from neighboring businesses 

The DowntownDC BID’s director of homeless services Debra Kilpatrick Byrd first informed the Church of the Epiphany and Street Sense Media of complaints from neighboring businesses about the cleanliness of the encampment on March 24, 2022. 

The BID, a 501(c)(6) nonprofit that oversees developments in the downtown D.C. area, collected a range of complaints from businesses and tourists and compiled them through the help of church and Street Sense Media staff. The biggest concerns were about public urination and defecation around the encampment.

“A G Street stakeholder meeting was established in early 2022 to provide a safe, fair, and open platform for all,” Byrd wrote in an email to Street Sense. Representatives of these businesses would raise their complaints to Huber through these online meetings.

On April 3, 2022, Huber and Brown invited Byrd to the church to talk about what steps would need to be taken to get encampment residents off the streets and into housing. DMHHS conducted a trash-only clearing at the encampment on Aug. 16, only removing trash and non-essential items from the area. 

Huber said she understood there were legitimate health concerns. But she did not like being a “lightning rod” for complaints, receiving pressure to house the residents and remove the encampments.

“The businesses said ‘Well if you care so much about the homeless, then why don’t you house them in your parking lot?’ I said ‘Cool, great, why don’t you help me pay for it?’” Huber said. She said as the church is a nonprofit, it has limited funding and resources. 

Some churches have converted their parking lots into sleeping spaces for people experiencing homelessness, calling them safe-parking programs. The Lake Washington United Methodist Church in Washington state launched a program in 2011 to allow women and families experiencing homelessness to park their cars and sleep in their parking lot overnight. Families are given 24-hour access to the church’s kitchen and bathrooms. 

However, a safe parking program requires people to have cars to park and sleep in. Around 35% of District residents are car-free. 

Huber ultimately believes the onus is on the government to house people living on the streets. She says the church maintains the stance that they would not participate in efforts to remove the encampment, and has connected with Pathways case managers to help encampment residents get housing since 2022.

“The church had been adamant about not kicking the can down the road,” Huber said. “If you’re gonna clear the encampment, then people need a place to go.”

Public restroom access

Mars and Dovonou say they did not see people from their encampment publicly urinate and defecate, as the nearby businesses complained. But they said bathroom access was a challenge.  

The nearest restroom options in the area are Street Sense Media’s bathrooms, and the Downtown Day Services Center a block away. But Street Sense Media only allows vendors to use the bathrooms between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. on weekdays. The Day Services Center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, putting a limit on when and where encampment residents can use the restroom. 

Mars said he often went to the nearby Panera Bread or Starbucks. He would usually be left alone, but employees would sometimes ask him to leave if he spent too long in the bathroom. He would also use the Day Services Center’s facilities to shower, get lunch and access mental health services.

Dovonou would use Street Sense Media and the Day Services Center’s bathrooms during their operating hours, but had to be prepared for when they closed.

“On the weekends, I try to make sure I don’t eat much food so I don’t have to go to the bathroom,” Dovonou said. He says he urinates in bottles when he cannot access bathrooms at night and disposes them. 

The People For Fairness Coalition (PFFC), which advocates for people experiencing homelessness, has pushed the District for better bathroom access for people living outside. The D.C. government is considering implementing public restrooms like portable toilets across the city as a way to give the public 24 hour access to restrooms — but progress is slow. 

Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto introduced the Expanding Access to Public Restrooms Act of 2023 on Jan. 31. If passed, the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation would need to include public restrooms in parks. The bill is currently in committee. 

The council passed a similar bill named the Public Restroom Facilities Installation and Promotion Act in 2019, which PFFC supported. The act asks the city to ask BIDs and Advisory Neighborhood Commissions to identify two locations in the city to install public restrooms with 24/7 access. Restrooms should be targeted at areas with high incidents of public defecation and urination, and near public transportation and homeless shelters, the law said. 

The most recent update is a May 2022 report, in which the city has identified Gallery Place and Starburst Plaza as two of the top locations for consideration, but has not yet made definitive decisions on where to install these two restrooms. Next year’s budget is set to remove funding for the program. 

Some encampment residents could try to rely on the Medical Necessity Restroom Access Act passed in August 2022. People with eligible medical conditions that require access to a bathroom can now apply for a Medical Necessity Restroom Access (MNRA) card, which can be shown to access customer or employee bathrooms. 

Yet while a disproportionate number of people experiencing homelessness have severe and chronic illnesses that require restroom access, obtaining an MNRA requires a medical professional’s attestation, which can be difficult to obtain without medical insurance or government identification. 

Limits to case management efficiency

Residents at encampments largely have to rely on case managers to find housing and shelter before their encampment closes. But G Street encampment residents say they rarely saw their case managers and thus made little progress towards housing before they had to move. 

Mars first encountered this problem when he lived in McPherson Square, which the National Park Service closed in February, two months earlier than originally scheduled. Around 70 encampment residents were displaced and only 22 people obtained temporary housing by the date of clearing. Only two moved into permanent housing. 

Mars told Street Sense he rarely saw his case manager over the months before the clearing at McPherson Square. Mars said case managers would ask encampment residents their personal information to fill out forms that help case managers and the District determine who should receive assistance first, and whether they are eligible for a housing voucher. But encampment residents would not hear the results of the assessment from case managers for months at a time.

At G Street, Huber and Brown say they connected with Pathways to provide the residents with case management resources after their meeting with DowntownDC BID in April 2022. Yet, similar to McPherson Square, four people who stayed at the encampment say they rarely saw case managers. When the April 27 encampment clearing was announced three weeks earlier, Mars and Dovonou saw Pathways case managers at a higher frequency than they did before. 

Adam Maier, director of housing partnerships at Pathways credited the slow case management processes to staffing shortages and high caseloads in an interview with Street Sense in October. With 16 encampment closures in 2023 alone, and 4,922 people currently experiencing homelessness according to the 2023 Point-in-Time Count, case management processes are struggling to keep up with the District’s housing needs.

Pathways did not respond to questions about the encampment closure by the time of publication. 

“We knew it was inevitable. We knew it was going to happen,” Huber said. “I had hoped we could get more people into housing.”

Mars received a bed at 801 East Men’s Shelter through a Pathways case manager by the day of the eviction, where he stayed for a week. Pathways then worked to find him a bed at Prestige Healthcare Resources, where he currently resides and receives treatment for his mental health. Pathways has begun processing paperwork for permanent supportive housing, but the process of getting a voucher and moving into housing can take more than a year — and Mars can only stay at Prestige’s housing for 90 days.

Daniel Ball, another encampment resident and artist and vendor with Street Sense Media, was offered a place at a men’s shelter by Pathways — but declined as he found the place to be “filthy,” according to Sybil Taylor, his partner. He was then offered a bed stay at a 90-day detox program, which he rejected as, according to Taylor, he wants to stay in contact with her and the vendor community. By the day of the eviction, Ball did not have a shelter to go to, and city employees threw his tent in the trash.

“I feel so bad for Danny. He’s my heart,” Taylor said. She said Ball is currently sick and staying at a friend’s place to recover.

A member of PFFC helped residents throughout the eviction. She knew that Dovonou needed dialysis, so she got him a bed at Christ House, a shelter for unhoused men who require health care and treatment. Dovonou said he will need to go to Indiana by June 5 to attend a court trial — but is enjoying a peaceful stay in the meantime. 

Dovonou is trying to keep a positive outlook on his future.

“Whenever a situation arrives, you need to adapt yourself,” Dovonou said. “I will look for work. Keep moving, keep moving. No matter what’s happening.”

Correction (05.31.2023)

This article previously incorrectly identified the Downtown DC BID’s nonprofit status. It is a 501(c)(6) and not a 501(c)(3). Added the first name of a source, Debra Kilpatrick Byrd, to the first reference of her name in the article.

Issues |Encampments|Health, Mental|Health, Physical|Living Unsheltered|Nonprofits

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