This article was featured in the April 29 digital-only edition of Street Sense. Until it is safe to resume person-to-person sales, you’ll always be able to find the current digital-only edition at streetsensemedia.org/Digital Thank you for reading! Please continue to support our vendors through our mobile app (streetsensemedia.org/App).
ev. Christopher Tobias, with the faith-based community organization Hands Up Outreach Ministry, has been a D.C. resident all his life, but in a lifetime in the District, he had never seen a homeless encampment like the one just outside the NoMa Metro Station in the city’s northeast quadrant.
The encampment, home to single people and couples, is just blocks away from Union Market, a repurposed warehouse lined with stalls selling trendy food, beverage and goods. The neighborhood, once the territory of infamous drug trafficker Rayful Edmond III, is quickly gentrifying.
For Tobias, this is still D.C., still his home, and there is more to do. Earlier this year, during Black History Month, Hands Up Outreach partnered with Bible Way Church, Mt. Airy Baptist Church and Third Street Church of God to provide 150 meals as well as blankets, socks and other supplies to residents of the NoMa encampment.
Victor Brown, a 44-year-old experiencing homelessness who received several blankets, described Hands Up Outreach’s effort as “friendly” and “helpful.” Tobias notes that individuals experiencing homelessness, including those at the M street encampment, are seldom the recipients of positive human encounters. They were “extremely grateful” for the aid and the interactions themselves, Tobias observed.
Some passing by noted their approval of their effort. Tobias recalls a moment when a “couple of police officers rolled by and waved, gave a thumbs up.” Similarly, a D.C. Housing Authority officer came to inspect the scene and told Tobias to “do what you’re doing.”
But according to Tobias, among all of the people who pass through, those living in nearby homes make the members of the encampment community feel the most unwelcome.
“When they were walking by, you can see that they felt uncomfortable,” Tobias said. Even when volunteers attempt to engage those who live in homes nearby, he said they are “standoffish,” some clutching their purses and, at times, outright “rude.”
With an increase in residential complaints, the next step for encampments like these is usually a cleanup that evicts the homeless population from their community. This is what happened to the residents of the K Street encampment. M Street appears to be next, Tobias mused.
When cleanups occur, the city offers services but many encampment residents do not take the city up on the offer, according to Tobias. He noted that the shelter options are “rough” and can be “scary,” as residents clash and find themselves in substandard conditions, living with bedbugs and sweltering temperatures. “It’s quite frightening,” Tobias said.
[Read more: Recovering from trauma of an encampment clean-up]
Nevertheless, Tobias and Hands Up Outreach are determined to find an alternative. Hands Up Outreach has worked extensively with Tyler’s House, an affordable housing complex, hosting holiday meals and health symposiums, as well as financial literacy programs. Hands Up Outreach is also organizing a community outreach day slated to occur sometime this spring or summer.
Still, Tobias advocates for alleviating mass homelessness through more sustainable solutions. He believes in allocating more public resources to provide relevant training for individuals experiencing homelessness through the Department of Human Resources. This would prepare these individuals for “decent government jobs” through the D.C. Department of Employment Services (DOES) and help them find gainful employment in the public and private sectors.
DOES’s outreach vans — a mobile employment-scouting unit that registers individuals for training programs — are supposed to help create a pipeline toward sustainable employment in jobs that provide a living wage. However, Tobias noted there is not much follow-up with individuals who sign up through the vans.
Tobias acknowledges a benefit in connecting individuals experiencing homelessness with job opportunities, but he argues that more affordable housing options are also needed. He noted some progress in making housing more affordable in the District, but he doesn’t see the cost of living falling any time soon.
Tobias feels compelled to serve his fellow Washingtonians. He doesn’t see residents who recently moved to the District or the hip businesses that have sprung up as the enemy; to Tobias they are newcomers who haven’t yet embraced the power of community engagement. D.C.’s socioeconomic changes could be good, he admits, “if we could all participate in them.”
Clara Hendrickson contributed reporting.