Darleen Torres and her husband Ezekiel Hernandez are from Albuquerque, New Mexico. They faced many challenges in that state, including finding an affordable place to live, getting a job, and facing addictions.
The environment they were living in continued to drive them into trouble, so one day, Darleen told Ezekiel they needed to leave New Mexico. They bought a one-way ticket to Darleen’s cousin’s house in Oregon. There, Darleen worked to attain sobriety.
In November, they decided to leave for D.C. to visit Darleen’s mother and daughter. Darleen’s mother did not have the means to take care of them both. So she helped Darleen and Ezekiel buy a tent.
They found a small square park at the corner of New Jersey Ave. and O Street NW, where other people were already living, to place their tent. Ezekiel and Darleen believe the city is their best option in the region to improve their situation and stay close to family.
However, they were unaware they would face eviction when moving into the park due to the city’s encampment pilot program.The effort is designed to remove three of the largest encampments in the District, including the New Jersey Ave. and O Street park, and accelerate the process to get homeless residents into stable living situations. Still, it has been criticized for displacing people before housing is achieved.
“The people here, they’re really good people. There’s the bad and the ugly, but they’re all good people at heart. We’re all going through something, and we’re all going through this together here,” Darleen said.
On Dec. 2, Darleen and Ezekiel faced eviction from a place that represented shelter and stability for them.
Three days before the closure at the NJ and O park, the city solidified a black metal fencing into concrete around the park. Darleen and Ezekiel are considering moving back to New Mexico since they had limited options.
“One option is getting bus tickets back to New Mexico. That’s if we really absolutely have to. But we really don’t [want to] because we started this big adventure, not to go back but to get better. So, I really want to make my daughter proud,” Darleen said.
They worry if they go back to New Mexico, they will relapse and continue down a dark path. While being here in D.C. gives them hope in improving their situation.
D.C. workers and police began to close the park around 8 a.m. Roughly 30 Metropolitan police officers were fluctuating in and out of the area. Thirteen police vehicles surrounded the park, an unusually high number for a cleanup such as this one. Law enforcement closed down O Street NW from New Jersey Ave to 5th Street. The police did not allow the public to go into the park, including the media.
During the first encampment shutdown of the pilot program, in the NoMa area near Union Station, a homeless man was in his tent when it was lifted by a piece of heavy machinery. The city resumed the clearings a day after and has since placed concrete barricades along the sidewalks at the underpasses of L and M Streets NE. The District cleared the K Street NE underpass last year, but did not add barricades to prevent residents from coming back to sleep.
Despite pushback from councilmembers and the public, there were two heavy machinery vehicles in the final cleanup at New Jersey and O.
“What I’m seeing here is a bigger front-end loader than we saw at the NoMa encampment. And, I’m seeing a lot of police presence, and that puts people’s guards up and on the defensive,” D.C. Councilmember Elissa Silverman said. “What an encampment clearing does is just move the problem into somebody else’s neighborhood.”
Silverman, along with At-Large Councilmember Robert White and Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, attended the closure and were allowed inside the fences to speak with encampment residents.
There were roughly eight individuals at the park on the cleanup date. City officials decided to place those individuals into temporary shelters at hotels. Two advocates wrote on Twitter that some of the people who received hotel stays were only given a room until Dec. 7. Darleen confirmed that she and Ezekial were leaving their hotel room but could not be reached to say whether this was mandated. A spokesperson for DMHHS said they were unaware of an end to hotel stays and could not confirm or deny the claim before Street Sense went to press.
“It wasn’t so stressful at least knowing we had somewhere to be and not be harassed,” Darleen said. “It’s coming to an end now, and the way things are going, it is going to take time.”
The D.C. encampment pilot program began clearing out encampments at the beginning of fall. According to the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services [DMHHS], there were 90 days of canvassing to add residents from the sites to the “by-name” list of people that would be housed by the pilot. The New Jersey and O Street canvassing began on Sept. 20.
DMHHS says those who made the list are promised a one-year lease for temporary housing, allowing them time to get matched to permanent housing. Still, some individuals were left out of the pilot program. It can be challenging to sign everyone up as people constantly move in and out of encampments. D.C. officials also would not commit to add residents to that list who moved to the encampments after the canvassing was completed.
Many people who did not receive housing after the NoMa encampment closure moved to the park at New Jersey and O. Outreach workers from Pathways to Housing D.C, a nonprofit partially funded by the city, recommended the move to some of their clients. Once someone receives a housing subsidy, the process of choosing an apartment, applying, and moving in takes time. Moving to another encampment would allow clients to remain more reachable to participate in this process.
The park at New Jersey and O NW has changed during the past two months, with new individuals settling in and old residents leaving, such as Darleen and Ezekiel. They were not here when the city was canvassing the encampments, so their options were limited.
During the last two months, caseworkers connected some people with services before the closure.
As of Dec. 2, 32 individuals from the park were on the by-name list and13 have acquired leases, according to a dashboard published by DMHHS and the Department of Human Services. Fifteen have engaged with outreach workers, three are no longer at the site, and one is refusing engagement, according to the government’s data. The park will now remain closed for renovations that were planned before the pilot program was launched.
This year, the D.C. Council established a new tax on wealthy residents that provides dedicated funding for housing and other human services. In fiscal year 2022, which began in October, the budget includes $65 million to provide new long-term housing for homeless residents, including 2,400 vouchers and subsidized units.
“Most folks, given the opportunity for housing on a timeline that works for them, will choose housing. Rushing people, forcing people to take the first available units, assuming that because they’re homeless, they shouldn’t have that choice,” Nadeau said. “ That’s insulting. It’s undignified.”
Nadeau, who chairs the council’s Committee on Human Services, spearheaded a push by some councilmembers to pause encampment clearings while the housing side of the pilot program continues. Before the NJ and O clearing, she along with Silverman, White, and Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis-George had called on Mayor Muriel Bowser to pause encampment evictions until hypothermia season ended.
The afternoon of the clearing, she shared plans for emergency legislation to pause the future encampment closures until the end of hypothermia season.
If passed, the legislation would ban the District for a period of 90 days from prohibiting the establishment of an encampment on a public space, removing such an encampment, or removing an encampment resident’s property unless it has been abandoned.
It would also require the District to maintain bathrooms and handwashing stations for every 10 encampment residents, which would be required to be cleaned five days per week. Trash disposal would have to be offered five days a week, fire safety training would have to be provided on a quarterly basis, and fire extinguishers would have to be placed at each encampment within 30 days of the legislation’s passage. The District would also have to make sharps disposal containers available if needed.
The District would have up to 30 days after the legislation’s passage to remove all barriers erected after the clearing of other encampments in the pilot program, such as the concrete jersey barriers at the NoMa encampments or the metal fence around the park at New Jersey and O.
Instead of voting on the emergency legislation, Councilmembers approved a measure, 9-3, to postpone the vote in hopes of reaching a compromise. Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray was absent after suffering a mild stroke. Nadeau, Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto, and Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh voted not to postpone.
One more encampment closure is anticipated at 20th/21st and E Street NW in Foggy Bottom as part of the pilot program. The date is still to be determined as the city reassesses what resources are necessary to carry out the closure based on how things went at the New Jersey and O park, per discussion during the D.C. Council vote.