Photo of 4 tents that are part of a larger encampment of homeless people in Foggy Bottom DC.
credit: Eric Falquero

Blocks away from The George Washington University, 18 tents sit nestled in the shadow of the Watergate complex.

Despite the constant road noise from Rock Creek Parkway, Virginia Avenue and the Whitehurst Freeway on-ramp, denizens of this encampment see the location as a refuge.

Or they used to.f

On Friday November 13, city officials let them know cleanup crews would arrive the following Monday morning to disband the encampment.

“This is better than homeless people sleeping in front of stores, sleeping behind stores, breaking into somewhere to keep warm…” said Steve Aroche, who lives in one of the tents and has been homeless for 15 years.

The park land is relatively open and surrounded by few residences. The campers make up a fairly tight-knit community. Waves and smiles were exchanged between neighbors as they came and went from their tents. More and more people congregated over time at a central cluster of mismatched chairs, coolers and a lone stepstool.

“These guys are the greatest men in the world,” said Aroche. “And we’ve got ladies to watch over too: elderly as well as young.”

He gestured to a woman standing nearby

“It’s so f***ed up they’re going to evict us from tents,” she said

The camp directly violates city regulations that prohibit any form of “temporary abode without explicit consent from the mayor’s office. But the Virginia Avenue encampment took root and has been growing there since January.

“Law enforcement and the park service let us be and waited for the city to approve the evacuation,” Aroche said.

Sweeping the camp has been in the works at least since early August, when Aroche heard about a new city encampment protocol during a Foggy Bottom Association meeting. The encampment has already been cleaned out once since then, which included welding shut some areas under bridges.

Sam Ford reports on the cleanup of a Foggy Bottom homeless encampment. | Video courtesy o ABC-7 WJLA

“People were allowed to move back in before,” explained Gunther Stern, who conducts daily street outreach in the area as the executive director of Georgetown Ministry Center. “I think this will be a much more pervasive cleanup.

The Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services office coordinates five departments to conduct a “sweep.” According to the new protocol, the Department of Transportation should post notice of the cleanup at least two weeks in advance to allow time for people to try and figure out a plan for their belongings. Anything within view of the notice may be removed after that time, reported the Foggy Bottom Current.

Notices for this second Virginia Avenue cleanup were posted two weeks before November 12. In theory that means everyone is prepared by now. In practice, most still couldn’t say where they will go now that the time has come

“What’s happening on Monday?” asked one newcomer to the camp’s social circle, who had not yet heard the news.

The federal government formally frowns upon anti-camping, anti-feeding and other laws that criminalize homelessness. But this sort of legislation is common at the state and municipal level.

“I’m not shocked,” said Stern“ There are tents popping up everywhere. There’s some point in which I can imagine that the mayor can no longer say ‘I’m looking the other way.’”

Department of Human Services and Department of Behavioral Health workers visited the camp on Friday. No police officers were involved. They assessed the men and women present for “coordinated entry” into housing assistance and consulted on their immediate options for shelter. As many as 8 people from the camp were housed earlier this year, reported WTOP.

Washington, D.C. is one of few cities where residents are guaranteed a right to shelter, in the event of freezing temperatures or inclement weather.

The city’s Winter Plan estimates the need for more than 300 “overflow beds” for single adults and more than 700 overflow motel rooms for families in order to provide shelter for everyone that seeks it this winter. The system is bursting at the seams, with more people seeking shelter in July of this year than at the peak of last winter.

“We got tents to stay warm in the winter,” Aroche said. “To have a roof over our heads, to protect our belongings and to not have trash nowhere on the grounds.”

There’s simply a limited number of spaces in housing programs, according to Stern. Especially for people with no income. But he views the sheer volume of tents and people as “out of control.” Stern also believes that many of the people that have been out here for so long have trouble facing up to mental illness and accepting help.

Another man staying at the camp, Jim*, didn’t feel comfortable giving his real name while still in need of help. He had heard the city was cracking down because of complaints from residents

Jim has been homeless since he lost a full-time job in 2011. He now has part-time work at a shop in Georgetown. But it doesn’t pay enough for a steady room in the District.

“We used to stay behind a building over there,” Jim said as he gestured to offices on the other side of the freeway. “But security ran us off. Now they’re kicking us out of here. Where are we supposed to go?”

Jim  found it hard to believe there were complaints about the camp because so many people stop by to check on the encampment. A woman had just dropped off a box of hand warmers and socks that morning. Someone else had showed up to donate food the night before right when Jim started to ache with hunger.

“If you’re going to write anything, write that,” he said. “There are a lot of good Samaritans out there. The community here is very generous, they always help us.”