The D.C. government next week will permanently remove the tents and belongings of people experiencing homelessness from the sidewalks along the underpass on K Street NE in the NoMa area to create a “pedestrian passageway.”
Nearly 40 people living on that street were notified last week by an official sign affixed to a light post that reads “This sidewalk must remain clear at all times. Blocking pedestrian passage is a public safety hazard.”
City workers clean homeless encampments weekly across the District. But Wayne Turnage, deputy mayor for health and human services, said his agency’s outreach staff noticed it was becoming increasingly difficult for pedestrians to walk along K Street NE without having to step into the roadway to get by the encampment, citing it as a safety hazard and the reason for the permanent removal of all tents.
“The current law in this area say it is unconstitutional for the government to force people out of public space if they don’t have another place to go,” said Ann Marie Staudenmaier, an attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “And that is, unfortunately, what the city is going to do next Thursday, if they follow through with this.”
Currently, it is a civil violation to set up a temporary abode in a public space, Ms. Staudenmaier said, so to throw people’s homes away on or after Jan. 16 is a violation of due process.
She compared the situation to if someone parked illegally and then the city seizing and destroying the car.
“I am not aware of any constitutional fixture that prevents a locality from ensuring its public walkways are clear so people can pass without having to step into the streets,” Mr. Turnage said.
Michael Harris, who has been living in a tent on K Street NE for about a year, said he wasn’t surprised to see the notice about a permanent removal because he knows some of his neighbors do take up too much space on the sidewalk.
He got into a shouting match Wednesday with one of his neighbors who would not clear a path on the sidewalk for Mr. Harris to get by in his wheelchair.
Mr. Harris, 58, plans to move to the L Street encampment with a group of his neighbors as he waits for paperwork for his housing voucher to be finalized.
“No one wants a butthole in front of their eyes, I get it but on the other hand, are there reasonable options in the other aspect, to go somewhere? I currently don’t have that,” said Aaron Michael Scott Pernier Garland, 36, who has been in a tent on K Street NE for about two months but has no idea where he will move to next week.
Mr. Garland compared the shelters to a zoo and jails that are “hotbeds” for “drugs, and dirty crap and behavior.”
“It’s pretty sad when living under a bridge is more comfortable,” than a shelter, Mr. Garland said.
Like Mr. Garland, many who live on the streets don’t want to move into shelters, and to that Mr. Turnage said, “All we can do is to try to work with the homeless population to let them know the major changes that are being executed in the shelters,” like the major renovations 801 East Men’s Shelter and Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter are undergoing.