WASHINGTON — The plan to remove the homeless encampments at two underpasses in NoMa paused for the day after a bulldozer driver was clearing out a tent with an unhoused resident still inside.
Witnesses described the moment as a chaotic scene as advocates rushed to prevent the man from getting seriously hurt. Community advocates said he was taken to the hospital by ambulance for extra medical attention and is expected to be okay. There were no visible injuries sustained, according to the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services.
"They had to cut a hole to make sure this person was okay and they brought in the fire department who actually got him out," witness Andrew Anderson told WUSA9. "They didn't actually take any time to make sure anyone was in there, they just grabbed the tents and took them out."
Anderson is also a part of the nonprofit organization People for Fairness Coalition, which provides a variety of services to homeless encampments. He and other activists spent much of the day at the homeless sites at the L and M Street underpasses.
They are one of four areas the city is focusing on as part of the new Coordinated Assistance and Resources for Encampments (C.A.R.E) pilot program aimed at relocating more than 100 unhoused residents to apartments and connecting them to resources while closing down the homeless encampments for health and public safety reasons.
"The goal all along has been to get housing for our neighbors living on the street – stable, safe, warm housing," Councilman Charles Allen said in a statement. "We should be celebrating people moving off the street into apartments but what happened today was completely unacceptable. And the team responsible needs to understand what happened and how we can humanely make this transition. We have the funds set aside to end homelessness for many, many people. Our unhoused neighbors deserved better than what happened today."
Crews were able to remove the tents and power wash one side of M Street before operations were suspended. They returned in the early evening to occupy the space with concrete blocks. Part of the plan was to establish them as no-tent zones, an idea more than 600 people including advisory neighborhood commissioners signed a letter to oppose.
Advocates questioned the timing since some of the unhoused residents said they are still waiting for a move-in date despite applying for housing through the program. Some decided to vacate the site early while others are choosing to stay.
The program has facilitated housing leases for up 22 participants and an additional eight participants are in the process of moving into housing in the coming days, per ODMHHS. Participants who are eligible will be offered the Pandemic Emergency Program for Medically Vulnerable Adults (PEP-V) stays in the meantime.
People for Fairness Coalition Executive Director Reginald Black wanted more public input, time and other options to help the needs of each individual.
"Had there been a better public process, I think we would have had clear understanding and recommendations from some of the unhoused residents who actually live in these affected areas," Black said.
In a series of tweets, Councilwoman Brianne Nadeau said she expressed concerns directly to Deputy Mayor Turnage and suggested immediately revisiting the protocols for the pilot.
"Invisibilizing and criminalizing homelessness due to the demands of a vocal minority of DC residents tired of seeing the reality of DC’s homelessness crisis is neither an acceptable nor a humane way to make decisions," the group The Way Home responded in a statement.
Removing homeless encampments has been a hot-button issue in the city as the number of sites has grown since the pandemic started.
More recently, the homeless encampments at Burke Park were removed by Park Police after ongoing back-and-forth and disagreements between ANC Alexandria Bailey, concerned neighbors, activists and law enforcement.