Barracks Row’s Most Troubled Block – ANC Task Force Takes a Close Look

Capitol Hill residents and stakeholders met Monday night to discuss Barracks Row “pain points.”  Click to enlarge.

MPD First District Commander Kane (center said police presence on the block would be increased. Also pictured at left is First District Captain Knutson.

Police presence on Barracks Row, circa 8:30am, Tuesday.

Police presence, Barracks Row, circa 7:45pm Tuesday.

Barracks Row’s Most Troubled Block – ANC Task Force Takes a Close Look

by Larry Janezich

Monday night, Jennifer Samolyk’s ANC6B Outreach Task Force convened residents and stakeholders to take a hard look at Barrack Row’s most troubled block – the west side of the 400 block, opposite the Fire Station.

The businesses on that side from north to south include Starbucks, &Pizza, The Nail Spa, Popeyes, Be Here Now Yoga, Chipotle, Eat Bar, Bolis Pizza, Capitol Hill Tandoor and Grill, Chi Ko, Bank of America  ATM, a for-lease retail space, and  7-11.

Attendees wanted to know why the west side of the block is a gathering place for panhandlers and people with mental or substance abuse problems.  That environment fosters drug sales, bathroom issues, littering, and frequent encounters with unconscious substance abusers.

One resident said he does not walk his child down the block.  Commissioner Samolyk said she doesn’t either.  MPD First District Commander Kane, who was at the meeting, said she has a child and walks on Barracks Row, adding, “I see what you see…it’s gotten worse…it’s on our radar”.  When asked why people hang out on the 400 block, she said,”I don’t know.”  Kane acknowledged a need for stronger enforcement in order to send a message, but that strong enforcement is tempered by police having to distinguish criminal acts from mental or substance abuse issues …”We try to be understanding but when problems escalate, we have to take action”.  She expressed concern about taking somebody who can’t take care of themselves and putting them into the criminal justice system.  Kane pledged to double the police presence in the area, assigning a second MPD police officer to the block, providing a police presence from 6:00 or 7:00am until 9:00 or 10:00pm.

Martin Smith, Executive Director of Barracks Row Main Street, citing his background in urban planning, had some answers why the block is in trouble.  His list included the number of empty stores (Tandoor Grill and the for-lease space), restaurants which are not open during the day (Chi-Ko and Eat Bar), the dead space in front of the Bank of America ATM, national chain outlets which are unresponsive to complaints and community concerns (7-11, Starbucks, Popeyes and Bank of America), and the lack of public occupation of public space (no sidewalk cafes).  He said that the block provides food outlets with “more affordable dining options” which are more likely to be patronized by panhandlers operating on the block.  He pointed to the wide sidewalk and large spaces where people can sit without obstructing the flow of pedestrian traffic.  Finally, he cited his experience in engaging a panhandler who had been arrested “100 times”; when asked why he keeps doing it, replied, “because I make a lot of money and nothing ever happens (to me). “

A Barracks Row business owner from the 700 block asked Smith to pressure businesses on the 400 block to police their public space, saying, “…the block is incredibly dirty – filthy”.  Smith said that “We try as much as we can – the 400 block is challenging…we urge businesses to engage with the public space, but they say it’s not a high priority”.

Community Connections, which provides behavioral and primary health care coordination for DC’s marginalized residents coping with mental illness and addiction, has a treatment center adjacent to Barracks Row.  Representatives stressed their willingness to engage and cooperate and liaison, and said few of the habitués on Barracks Row are their clients.  (An MPD officer familiar with the block, when told of Community Connection’s claim, disagreed, saying 9 out of 10 of people hanging out on the block are clients of Community Connections.)

ANC6B Chair Dan Ridge urged the Task Force to propound at least one recommendation to forward to the full ANC for action, suggesting advocating for a bill now in committee providing for public bathrooms.  There are other recommendations which would be helpful, such as urging the owner of Tandoor Grill to erect a construction fence in front of the closed restaurant, urging Community Connections to take stronger measures to see that their clients do not remain in the area following treatment, and demanding that Bank of America take accountability for their trash strewn and problematic ATM (the card accessible door has been broken for days, allowing free entry into the space).  In the end, however, the Task Force was satisfied with the airing of issues and the promise of increased police presence on the block.

The Task Force meeting revealed how difficult it is to address what Samolyk called the “pain points” on Barracks Row.  MPD First District Captain Knutson emphasized that MPD can make arrests and increase enforcement  – “…that’s an easy fix, but it doesn’t solve the problem”.  It’s more difficult to address the underlying structural problems.  This reporter’s take-away from the meeting?

Vague promises were made of greater liaison between stakeholders (MPD and Community Connections and Sasha Bruce Youthworks and Community Connections), but no concrete plan about how to coordinate efforts to resolve outstanding issues emerged.

MPD has limited ability to deal with individuals causing quality of life problems (anti-loitering laws have been ruled unconstitutional).  In addition,  the criminal justice system is overwhelmed which leads to failure to prosecute and quick release.  Also, possession or sale of the synthetic drug K-2 which is largely responsible for the substance abuse issues on the block is not illegal.

Community Connections has limited capability to influence their clients to be good neighbors and is short funded to boot.

Sasha Bruce Youthworks doesn’t really deal with the Barracks Row demographic of those causing problems on the 400 block.

Sympathetic residents who support panhandlers are part of the problem.

Barracks Row Main Street doesn’t have the money to address the structural issues or help businesses on 400 block beautify their operations.

The difficult underlying structural problems on the block remain difficult problems.


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16 responses to “Barracks Row’s Most Troubled Block – ANC Task Force Takes a Close Look

  1. Kym

    Perhaps as has been done in other cities related to panhandling might include installing specific meters marked for service agencies serving the homeless or those in need where interested, concerned individuals can give their change to the systematic solution and rather, not sustain the demand for such activity…

  2. Sal

    So much of this article is spot on. There’s no easy moral, legal, or ethical answer. There are many helpful steps such as restrooms and engagment with all parties. All of this is good.

    One nit to pick. Community connections had $38 million in revenue and $30 million in net assets between their two organizations in 2016. Claiming poverty (“short funded”) falls on deaf ears to this neighbor.

  3. Anon

    The problem is in trying to find an alternative space for people to go if they’re not hanging on this block and we’re not going to get that.

  4. Andrew

    I’ve lived on the hill for 18 years and I’m more worried about all the other parts of barracks row where gentrifiers and VA suburbians patronize corporate small plate atrocities that are pushing out affordable businesses, raising rents, and destroying our community. I

    • Craig D'Ooge

      And then there is the problem further down the block, at 715 8th. SE, where people loiter on the street waiting for a meal, even when the place is closed. Some are even paid to loiter.

      • John

        And there’s little doubt that those enablers at 715 8th will be plying the loiterers with alcohol and “a small gift from the kitchen” as soon as they are let inside.

  5. Gerald Sroufe

    Thank you for the excellent summary of the meeting about problems on 8th street. I would like to call attention to Daniel Ridge’s support for the proposed public restroom legislation. I know of only three public restrooms: one near the White House, one in the National Arboretum, and one on East Potomac — not exactly accessible.

    European cities provide public toilets and water in urban areas. In some cities they discourage loitering in these sites by simply having no roofs.
    DC should provide public facilities for these two basic needs.

    Jerry Sroufe

  6. Jamin Jimmy

    This block is terrible. I walk it everyday and it’s almost always the same dozen people, sleeping, peeing, getting high. The doorway for Tandoor Grill is definitely a hotspot as is that ATM.

    I put the blame on Community Connections. The block we are talking about plus the park across the street is full of junkies nodding off, leaving needles in the park, it’s a mess.

    The public toilet idea is interesting but there would be people sleeping in it within a day.

  7. Daniel Buck

    As others have observed, panhandling, loitering, & snoozing on the sidewalk are not illegal, nor is being homeless, mentally ill, or addled. By comparison to the White House, 8th St. SE is a den of tranquility. As well, not sure how Community Connections is responsible; it’s not as if it can easily convert these lost souls into millennials.

    This is not a specifically DC issue; do any other cities have useful ideas?

  8. Ellen

    One thing that is never mentioned but which I do think contributes some to what people don’t like about the block, is the bus stop. Mix the many people on that end of the block just waiting for a bus with everyone and everything else, and the energy changes for that whole block when mixed with what business are there (or aren’t as the case may be).

    • John

      By and large, people waiting for busses are not the issue. Yes, bus riders often constitute a large crowd, but in my experience are well-behaved people simply going about their daily commutes. You might experience loud teenagers in the hours after school lets out, but they are just that — loud teenagers — and they, too, move on from the block relatively quickly.

  9. James Loots

    I disagree. I think the location of a crowded bus stop that both deposits and picks up multiple routes in a cramped space contributes to the situation a lot. Granted, the issue of 7/11 vagrancy (I am much more concerned about the drug use and frequently comatose individuals than the true panhandlers) is not directly tied to the bus stop, but I think the fact the bus stop is in such close proximity to a haven for loitering and drug use is a factor, and I have been personally accosted a number of times trying to walk past the bus stop on a crowded afternoon where the patrons (perhaps waiting, perhaps just arrived, perhaps loitering) have aggressively approached me and been obviously impaired. One other bus-stop related point: I agree with Martin Smith that lack of sidewalk cafes on the block is a factor, but Starbucks used to have one and had to remove it because it had turned into a de facto bus shelter waiting area.

  10. I think regular pressure-washing of the sidewalk, keeping it clean and well-lit, would assist.

    • Marc,
      good suggestion. There are a few little things that could be done, and a daily pressure-washing the sidewalk would be at the top of the list. Coincidentally, I walked down the block this morning, & found it fairly quiet. A gathering of nannies & strollers & kids, one pan handler, and two guys sitting by the 7-11. The sidewalk was strewn with cigarette butts, napkins, etc. (The north side of the 600 block of Penn Ave. SE often has more panhandlers & stoop sitters, but the sidewalk is cleaner.) The city/ANC should encourage the 8th St. SE tenants &/or landlords to clean up the sidewalk every day, that would go a long way towards brightening the block. Dan

      • mac

        Why should the stores have to clean up public sidewalks becausae of the mess left by non-customer vagrants? Why not ask MPD to ticket litters?

      • muskellunge

        @mac: citing people that will just throw the ticket on the ground will make the problem worse, not better.

        I like the idea of a daily wash-down. Some people that are presently careless with their trash may gain some respect for the block, and deposit their waste in the appropriate receptacle.