scorecardDC has a huge homeless population and for two weeks it's been very hard to access any kind of assistance thanks to the security lockdown
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DC has a huge homeless population and for two weeks it's been very hard to access any kind of assistance thanks to the security lockdown

Abigail Higgins   

DC has a huge homeless population and for two weeks it's been very hard to access any kind of assistance thanks to the security lockdown
LifeInternational5 min read
Freedom Plaza in Washington DC.    Andrew Lichtenstein for Insider

A rehearsal for President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration was briefly halted on Monday, as smoke billowed from under a freeway overpass behind the U.S. Capitol. The threat, it turned out, wasn't to lawmakers.

It was emanating from a nearby homeless encampment- a reminder of the nation's capital's staggering inequality and the toll the past weeks' chaos has taken on the city's most vulnerable residents.

The fire erupted when a propane tank exploded. A woman, who has not been named, was using it to stay warm inside her tent. While she escaped without major injuries, the brief but massive blaze destroyed everything she owned.

"D.C. really provides a stark visual representation of this country's disparities, where there are literally homeless encampments in the shadow of the capitol building," said Shannon Clark, 27, who co-runs Rem ora House, a collective that provides supplies like tents, masks, and sleeping bags to the unhoused.

The capital has the highest income inequality in the country and with an estimated 6,521 people experiencing homelessness in the small city, it has the highest per capita rate of unhoused in the United States.

Nearly two weeks after chaos engulfed the Capitol, when it was seized by a mob of Trump supporters, and as Washington DC prepares to host an historic transfer of power amid a pandemic and warnings of political violence, much of the city's downtown -- protected by miles of fencing manned by the 25,000 national guards deployed to the capital -- has been shut down.

Amid all that, housing advocates say that many of the city's unhoused have been displaced, nonprofit groups that people rely on for food, bathrooms, and medical care have had to temporarily cease operations. Miriam's Kitchen, a local nonprofit working to end chronic homelessness, shut down one of their meal services this week for the first time in 38 years. Bread for the City canceled its grocery delivery services this week as well as the free COVID-19 testing and flu shots it typically offers on Tuesdays.

These shutdows are occurring in the middle of winter, with temperatures dropping into the 30s, and as Covid-19 cases surge in the city, hitting the homeless population with particular force. At least 180 homeless people died in Washington D.C. in 2020, a 54 percent increase from the previous year, reported the Washington Post.

On Monday, D.C. officials were quick to quell panic that reverberated through the tightly wound city after the Capitol was briefly evacuated as a result of the fire. "Pretty much a non-incident," DC Fire and EMS Department Public Information Officer Vito Maggiolo told CNN.

Clark, who rushed to the scene to help when she saw reports, knew the woman from previous outreach and was heartbroken to watch her crying in front of a charred pile of her belongings. The woman was later taken to a shelter.

"After we got back to our car, after holding this woman who was crying because she's lost literally everything she owns, getting on Twitter and seeing everyone say 'false alarm, everything is fine' was hard," Clark said.

While the events of this inauguration are extraordinary, those without homes in D.C. are regularly displaced by the city's massive events, said Reginald Black, who is the Advocacy Director of the People for Fairness Coalition, a local nonprofit working to end housing instability in the city.

Tent in Washington DC.JPG
A tent in downtown Washington DC.      Andrew Lichtenstein for Insider

On Sunday morning, while the city braced for warnings of armed protests that never materialized, a trickle of people lined up outside The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in downtown D.C. The church, which was once attended by President Abraham Lincoln, was bisected by the city's militarized zone, with hulking fencing and soldiers on either side. Typically on Sundays, volunteers provide about 100 of D.C.'s housing insecure with food, coffee, and warm clothing, but this week only about 30 people showed up.

"The United States is supposed to be an example for the rest of the world," said Afework Tesgaye, an Ethiopian immigrant who barely made it to the church in time to get food, sweatpants, and a sleeping bag because he couldn't find his way through all the fencing downtown. Afework, who has struggled with housing since he was injured working on a construction site in downtown D.C. 14 years ago, said he couldn't believe that the Capitol siege had happened in the United States.

Phil Telfeyan, a member of the church who co-leads the distribution program, said it often felt like homelessness was at the bottom of the city's priority list. "We expected that a lot of guests wouldn't be able to make it through all these barricades, and anyone who has had negative interactions with law enforcement is going to be deterred," he said.

While African-Americans make up just 13 percent of the country's population, they constitute over 40 percent of the homeless. Washington D.C. is no different, causing many to fear that the attack at the capitol, which included a noose constructed nearby, multiple Confederate flags, and the presence of white nationalist organizations, could pose a particular threat to the city's homeless.

Out of fear that homeless people of color might be targeted by racist extremists, Clark of Remora House helped collect and distribute Metro cards so people had a way to flee if they needed to. When the city closed downtown Metro stations, Clark distributed hand drawn maps of the shutdowns and tried to help people understand the complicated road blockages so they'd know how to get out.

While this week's events are extreme, they're an escalation of conditions that have made many D.C. residents feel like they're living in a city under siege for months now.

Every Wednesday for the past 15-20 years, Joe Mettimano and his faith-based nonprofit Central Union Mission, held a food distribution and church service for the homeless in front of St. John's Church in Lafayette Square. The church made headlines in June when peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters were tear gassed so that Donald Trump could take a photo in front of the church. Shortly after, the church was walled off and they had to move the service. This week, they had to stop it entirely.

"I've been in Washington for 30 years and this is unprecedented. You've got COVID and the racial tensions, and unemployment, the economy is in bad shape, there's political unrest, riots on Capitol Hill," he said. "It's been a pretty unique 12 months but we're really hoping it's over."

For D.C.'s residents most dramatically affected by an unprecedented year, an end to the chaos can't come soon enough.