By Will Schick
Special to the AFRO

It is perhaps, one of the greatest ironies for the unsheltered people living in the underpasses at K, L, and M Streets N.E.- to be amidst a sea of vacancies in high-rise condos and luxury apartment buildings, and yet, have no place to call your own.

On Thursday, Jan. 16, the District “permanently” forced unsheltered residents to vacate from the underpass at K Street N.E. in the North of Massachusetts, better known as NoMa, neighborhood. It remains unclear as to where many of these unsheltered residents will realistically move.

The removal of unsheltered residents from the encampment on K Street N.E. in NoMa was enforced without any plans for “evicted,” residents, causing many people to challenge the District and Mayor Muriel Bowser on next steps, while displaced residents set up shelter nearby, such as on L Street N.E. (Photo by Micha Green)

As previously reported in the Washington City Paper, the Deputy Mayor of Health and Human services cited public health and safety concerns for pedestrians as the main reason for the clearing at K Street N.E. 

Duane Allen, an unsheltered resident who used to live at the underpass at K Street N.E., moved two blocks to M Street N.E. For him, the city’s order seemed like everything else. It made complete sense in the sense that it was not well thought out at all.

“You got a whole lot of…homes with vacant apartments,” he said while adding that he believed the city neglects to house people despite having the resources to do so.

Allen has lived on the streets in NoMa since last summer, after being released from a ten-month stint in prison for a crime he said he never committed. He said that support services for formerly incarcerated are virtually non-existent, and that he moved to the underpasses in NoMa shortly after he was released.

“I want a voucher,” he said, arguing that it was pointless for the city to send social workers to help provide him with health and comfort items like toothpaste and clean socks. “I want a home,” he said, “not a tent, not an air mattress.”  

Mama J, a long-time unsheltered resident who lives on L Street N.E., said she was concerned about potential for overcrowding on her street. “Ain’t no place for a whole other street here,” she said.

For her, the city’s order to move the residents was inherently non-sensical. “If you move them off the street, take them off the street. It’s that simple! We know they’re going to need a place to go,” she added.

Kayla Hoy, who recently moved to D.C. from Denver, recently found herself having to move off K Street N.E. onto an adjoining street. She said she felt welcome and safe sleeping outside next to the other unsheltered residents who lived alongside her on this block, and said she felt optimistic about her upcoming move to L Street N.E. 

Mike Harris, a 58-year-old unsheltered resident who has a physical disability and uses a wheelchair to move around, said that the move was “necessary.” For him, he said, it was “difficult” to move up and down the sidewalk. While Harris has recently received a housing voucher, he said he plans to move to the underpass at L Street N.E. for the time being, before he ultimately moves into his new home. 

When moving to L Street N.E., Harris said, he has a plan to get a “generator so we can power up a microwave and warm up some of the food we wonderful people like to eat.” 

Although he thinks L Street N.E. will become more congested, Harris said that it will remain an “organized chaos,” and that the people living there would “make sure that it remains walkable and passable.”

With temperatures expected to dip below 30 degrees Fahrenheit over the weekend, some advocates say the forced move could not have come at a worse time.

“I think the timing is bad,” Ann Staudenmaeir, a lawyer with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless said.

She said she believed it was likely pressure from housed neighbors that served as the impetus for the sudden change in the city’s stance on the encampments on this street.

Staudenmaeir also added that the District’s annual point in time count, which is a federally mandated headcount of people experiencing homelessness, will take place over the next week. The forced removal of unsheltered residents from those underpasses could make it more difficult to gain a full headcount of people who used to live there.