The M Street underpass in NoMa by airbus777 licensed under Creative Commons.

On Wednesday, August 21 the NoMa Business Improvement District (BID) released an open letter expressing frustration about underpass encampments in the area. People walking or otherwise traveling from east to west sides of the neighborhood have to go under these underpasses. They’re a common spot for people experiencing homelessness to sleep and camp.

NoMa BID president Robin-Eve Jasper outlined concerns she’s heard from residents about the encampments. She suggests that the city put together “pedestrian safe-passage zones” with minimum clear sidewalk widths in certain busy areas, and immediately remove tents and other personal property if they infringe on the space.

The BID’s statement begins,

The NoMa BID wishes to share publicly the sentiment expressed in an increasing volume of complaints we are receiving from neighbors in NoMa: Namely, that conditions are worsening at the encampments in the underpasses and on First Street NE, and that people are worried about their ability to safely traverse these public spaces. Many report that they have been harassed as they walk by the tent encampments, where people frequently engage in aggressive panhandling and occasionally menace passersby…

It continues to say that housing affordability is only part of the issue:

…we know that the primary challenges are the result of mental health and substance-abuse disorders. Such disorders are often the issues that cause people to choose to live on the street rather than stay in their housing or accept shelter. Well-intentioned advocacy that conflates the problems experienced by encamped individuals only with housing affordability is misguided. This is not to say that housing affordability, in general, is not an issue, but that housing alone, no matter how much is built, simply will not solve the encampment issues.

It also goes on to claim:

Finally, the views of ordinary residents, workers, and visitors have not been widely heard on these issues. There are many people whose passion for improving the housing situation and protecting what they think should be the legal rights of encamped individuals is a calling or a career. But there is no similar advocacy group devoted to making sure that people can safely pass through public spaces.

Here’s how some of our contributors reacted to the letter.

Neil Flanagan wants to know:

Is the BID doing any lobbying for a permanent solution, with housing and support? BIDs have a lot of weight.

I think you could argue that if they’re serious about getting unhoused people under real roofs, and help if required, they’d be lobbying for that, not just calling the government out and making the encampments some other neighborhood’s obligation. The latter is just NIMBYism.

Editorial Board member Joanne Tang points out,

Some people are in encampments because it’s how they can stay together as a family if shelters aren’t ideal or available or because their apartment was condemned or they were evicted. By itself, the BID doesn’t have the resources to do much about the underlying issues, but it definitely didn’t have to publish an open letter with this kind of tone.

This letter doesn’t seem focused on solutions for people experiencing homelessness, Nick Sementelli says,

My topline critique is that they center the problem as “we the BID are inconvenienced by these people, how do we keep them out of this space,” instead of “what would a real solution for these folks be, and how do we help put pressure on the city for that.”

Very specifically, I am most skeptical of the letter’s half-assertion/half-implication that Housing First has been tried and all of these folks refused it and chose this space over the housing. I’d be interested in hearing from any homelessness advocates who have worked with some of the folks in this area to determine how true that is. When they cleared the space last year, a number of people interviewed seemed to make clear that was not the situation for them.

Also I brushed up on how the FY2020 budget did on Housing First funding and this analysis from the Way Home Campaign was helpful. It shows we only met 40% of the estimated need this year.

Bradley Heard, who works in the area, says:

As someone who recently moved office locations to NoMa, I didn’t see a problem with the tone of the NoMa BID’s letter. They tried to handle a difficult and convoluted topic reasonably sensitively, while still advocating for improved neighborhood conditions (which is their primary function). It’s not the BID’s job to solve the homelessness issue; that’s all of our jobs, but primarily the DC government’s job.

I disagree that we should just accept homeless encampments under our underpasses (or anywhere else, for that matter). People experiencing homeless need a variety of things—mental health interventions, financial assistance, safe and affordable housing, etc.—and we as a society aren’t doing enough to meet those needs.

The BID is correct that people who live and work in the area have a right to safe and reasonably pleasant passage through public spaces—free from aggressive panhandling, the stench of urine and feces, etc. And people who are homeless also need safe places to live, eat, and use the bathroom. These concepts are not mutually exclusive. The city needs to find workable solutions that address both sets of needs.

Tracy Loh points out there are models we haven’t tried:

There are great models out there, like Cincinnati, and they start with EVERYONE coming to the table together, not saying “this is one local governments responsibility.” By everyone I mean: The private sector, philanthropy, service organizations, faith leaders, the feds, and all local jurisdictions, not just the central one.

Pointing fingers and running clearances is not going to solve the problem and it’s a willful choice to be part of the problem instead of part of the solution, but also a failure of leadership in all of the sectors I listed above.

Laziness, cowardice, the scarcity mentality, whatever you want to call it. That’s what we are seeing and that’s the breeding ground of failure. We will continue to live on that ground until we choose to be better.

Ben Lockshin agrees there’s more we could do:

I share the concern that Housing First seems to be dismissed by the BID. I visited Salt Lake City for work and they have a comprehensive model that, while of course imperfect, seems to work quite well—and saves money in the long run by averting jail stays, etc. As Tracy said, we need a similar comprehensive approach that doesn’t put the burden entirely on one organization or jurisdiction.

Again, anecdotally, I’ve heard from friends in this space that it can be frustratingly difficult to get the disparate actors to coordinate—even well-intentioned non-profits can be siloed off, focused only on their particular service model. The mayor’s office would seem to be a natural engine of leadership on this front.

I’m particularly distressed that the BID advocates calling 911 in nearly any situation. Please correct if I’m wrong, but I assume MPD would be assigned to any such “emergency,” and frankly I doubt that police are trained for responding to what are often mental health interventions.

A friend of a friend works for the San Francisco municipal agency that is essentially a non-police crisis line that helps find people shelter, etc. If we don’t have anything like this already, it could be crucial for bridging the gap. Personally, I would almost never feel comfortable calling 911 for fear of escalating the situation—arrest and jail time seems cruel and counter-productive (and potentially fatal) for an encamped person.

Readers: What do you think of the letter? What about solutions for encamped people, and people passing through?

Julie Strupp is Greater Greater Washington's Managing Editor. She's written for DCist, Washingtonian, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, and others. You can usually find her sparring with her judo club, pedaling around the city, or hanging out on her Columbia Heights stoop.