Neighbors Vexed at Persistent Homeless Camp Under Freeway at Third Street, SE

Encampment under the Third Street Overpass.

Neighbors Vexed at Persistent Homeless Camp Under Freeway at Third Street, SE

By Larry Janezich

The homeless encampment under the freeway on 3rd Street, SE, was the focus of a heated discussion at ANC6B’s February meeting on Tuesday night.  Residents around Garfield Park expressed their frustration that the city is not moving more aggressively to ban the encampment near the Garfield Park and nearby schools.  Much of the outrage is the result of an act of public defecation which, according to Commissioner Jennifer Samolyk, was witnessed by a family who complained to her.  Samolyk and some residents want to know why the city council can’t ban encampments near schools and parks.

It’s complicated.

CM Charles Allen, who attended the meeting, told the ANC and residents that the council could do that, but the minute they did, they would be hit with a lawsuit on behalf of the homeless which could jeopardize – as have similar lawsuits elsewhere – the city’s over-all protocol for dealing with homeless encampments.

Monica Merk and Jessica Smith, encampment coordinators with the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, were on hand to explain what that protocol is. An encampment is defined as a place of residence on public property or an accumulation of personal belongs left on public property.  There are 30 known encampments in the city and DHHS encampment task force has the capacity to do 16 clean ups a month. After receiving a complaint, the process begins with engaging the encampment residents to see what services they need and to encourage them to take advantage of city provided services and shelters.  DHHS does an inspection for public health and safety, looking for rodents, trash, and bio-hazards.  If tents – for example – block a sidewalk and prohibit passage, the encampment can be banned, as one was recently at an underpass on K Street, NE, in NoMa.

If there is a serious public safety risk HHS can do an immediate disposition.  If not, they do a standard disposition, which requires giving 14 days’ notice to the encampment residents of a pending cleanup.

HHS continues to visit the encampment during that period to engage the residents and urge them to take advantage of city services.  On the day of the cleanup, residents are warned that cleanup is imminent.  Exceptions are made for tents and belonging of residents in dire straits such as hospitalization.  Cleanups are dependent on weather, and are postponed during precipitation or cold temperatures and are a coordinated effort among several city agencies, including MPD, DPW, DHS, and DDOT.  DC has no authority to address encampments on private or federal property.

Samolyk told the encampment coordinators that people in the encampments do not meet the legal definition of city residents and objected to references using that term, and the “most vulnerable.” She said, “I’ve lived in the neighborhood 20 years and I’ve never seen what we are seeing now.  Why can’t they be placed in a homeless shelter?”

The simple answer is that the homeless often reject going to shelters and can’t be forced to go into one.  There are a complex set of reasons why; some feel they are safer outside, some reuse to give up or abandon their belongings or pets, some have their entire life possessions in a tent and would lose all of it if they go to a shelter.  Some fear bedbugs and some have been assaulted in shelters.

Last week, DHHS cleaned up the encampment on Third Street after 14 days’ notice. Smith said inspectors found no biohazard.   Within 24 hours it was back.  The encampment had been dismantled before DHHS arrived and trash had been picked up and bagged by former residents for pick up.  DHHS checks it regularly and keep engaging the residents of the camp, searching for a solution to their long term housing needs.  DHHS will continue issuing two week notices of pending cleanup of the camp.   Smith says that city agencies and service providers including the Department of Behavioral Health, DHHS, and Community Connections are in constant communication on encampment issues.

One resident called it “outrageous” that no protection from an encampment near schools is being offered for children.  That prompted Allen to ask the resident to specify the perceived risk and noted that he had walked the area with Commander Kane of the 1st District who could not find any criminal activity.  The resident implied that with an encampment close to a school and playground, the risk was apparent, referring to the residents of the encampment as “obviously transient”.

Allen replied he was “not comfortable with the way the resident was describing the homeless”, adding that here were multiple reasons for homelessness including eviction and job loss – “It’s not one thing.  None of us want to be in a tent … to say they are inherently a risk to children … we need to be careful. I’m not seeing illegal activity. If there is, we’ll be there, and if the risk is understood we’ll mitigate it and make an appropriate response.”

Responding to those who think the city isn’t tough enough on the homeless, Allen said, “I respectfully disagree we try to do too much.  DC is in a better position that other cities which are not doing the things we do, and that has made their problem worse.”

Allen urged residents to attend upcoming budget town hall meetings – both the Mayor’s and his own Ward 6 Budget Town Hall at Maury Elementary (TBA), calling it an opportunity for all of us to engage – a forum to encourage “feedback about where we need to do more and where we need to do less.”

For more on encampment protocol and a list of upcoming encampment protocol engagements, see here:

To report an encampment, call (202) 727-7973 or send a detailed description to the contact below:  Mayor’s Office of Community Relations and Services


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10 responses to “Neighbors Vexed at Persistent Homeless Camp Under Freeway at Third Street, SE

  1. Bob Gellman

    A very nicely balanced story….as usual.
    I am reminded of something that Anatole France once said: The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.

  2. kandc

    Finding a solution is not that difficult: A person who is homeless, needs a……Home! The only question is whether citizens will provide that or not.

    • Jenny from the block

      Everyone wants to live in a city until they come across city problems, then they are horrified it’s not just like the mid western burb they came from.

  3. Larry Frankel

    Make legal outdoor camp sites for the homeless. Guard them for safety, provide toilets, showers, and city services. This approach would save several hundreds of thousands over what is spent now to police these illegal encampments.

  4. W

    anyone who thinks tent encampments are bad in DC needs to visit LA, SF or Seattle. The order of magnitude there is unlike anything encountered in DC

  5. Valerie

    The reaction of both the commissioner and neighbors to people who have as much right to be in public space as they do is shameful. How is it that they are not “vexed” at the conditions that cause human beings to live outdoors in less than ideal circumstances? I have been here nearly 30 years, a decade more than that commissioner, and in that time, I have seen many affordable housing units in our neighborhood demolished and not replaced, the rich get way richer, the poor get poorer, our neighborhood housing priced beyond what most people anywhere in our country could ever afford, and an entire political party getting more powerful by demonizing anyone who isn’t powerful and doing little to help those who need it most. Has the commissioner not seen any of that happening? Is everyone who is “vexed” at this homeless encampment not “vexed” by the circumstances that have created it?

    • w

      well put. I don’t get further kicking people who are struggling by suggesting that their very existence is somehow a threat to public safety. No acts of kindness or compassion are required to simply let them be.

  6. Mo

    I live a half block from Garfield Park. I walk under by this encampment all the time and have had no problem with it or any of its residents. There are many valid reasons people don’t want to go to shelters.

    • Mac

      I don’t have a problem with this encampment, there isn’t even a crosswalk on that side of 3rd so no one ever needs to be in that side of the street if they don’t want to be.

  7. Sally M

    Very good journalism; thanks for the story.

    I too live half a block from this encampment. I’ve never had a problem with the residents. I do have a problem with the encampment itself, which makes my heart ache.

    Human lives and possessions are not something to be “cleaned up.” I doubt most of us would feel safe in the city’s shelters. Valerie raises a good point about the disappearance of numerous public housing units, many of them once located within a few blocks of this underpass.