Council Member Pinto and Georgetown BID Pursue Humane Tent Encampment Strategies 

In this pandemic summer, tent encampments of unhoused residents seem to be popping up everywhere across the District. What is to be done? 

For those suffering homelessness in the harsh urban landscape, how to provide proper care and housing? For the health of the community, how to prevent such encampments — notable for their unsafe and unsanitary conditions — from arising in the first place?  

The Georgetowner spoke with Ward 2 Council member Brooke Pinto and Georgetown Business Improvement District CEO Joe Sternlieb about their approaches to these issues. 

Pinto, serving Georgetown, has made homelessness a top priority. She’s enthusiastic about one of the city’s new pilot programs aimed at alleviating the root causes.  

“I understand that the challenge of homelessness in D.C. is not new,” she said. “One of the ways I’m working on moving our neighbors experiencing homelessness out of encampments and into housing is through support of a new pilot program through the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, which would provide targeted care and resources to those in encampments including shelter and housing options.” 

By using an individual case management approach, the program seeks to place as many unhoused city residents into permanent housing as soon as possible. “DMHHS is working with the Department of Human Services, the Department of Behavioral Health, and the Department of Public Works to implement a pilot program to begin this summer that focuses on providing intensive housing-focused case management, behavioral health, and substance [abuse] support at some of the District’s largest encampments to get residents into housing quickly,” Pinto said. 

Many unhoused residents have trouble with the cumbersome paperwork required to apply for housing assistance. So, Pinto’s office is working to simplify the process. “I have also been working with my colleagues to fund resources to move neighbors into housing and streamline the application process,” Pinto said.  

The council’s most recent budget will include “significant funding for housing vouchers to move hundreds of unsheltered neighbors into housing as well as provide sustainable housing options so people do not slip into homelessness,” Pinto said. “We’re also working to update the application process so it’s streamlined and housing placements can be made more quickly. My commitment is unwavering and I feel confident that these efforts will make a difference this year.” 

At the Georgetown BID, Sternlieb brings — in addition to his business background — years of experience serving D.C.’s unhoused communities to his job as BID CEO. While he’s highly attuned to the variety of problems tent encampments pose to businesses, visitors and neighborhood communities, he’s also well-versed in the need to provide mental health care, substance abuse treatment, and comprehensive social services to lift unhoused residents into permanent housing.  

When Sternlieb worked at the Downtown BID 20 years ago, he helped set up the Downtown Day Services Center on New York Avenue NW. The center provides a one-stop, comprehensive social services program — all under one roof — for the unhoused community. “This is a subject and an issue I’ve been working on for a really long time in this city,” Sternlieb said. “For a day program, it’s a relatively successful model.”  

To stem the crisis of homelessness, Sternlieb came to understand, you also have to provide reasonable options for those out on the streets and you can’t just use law enforcement to make the problem go away.  

“When I helped create the Downtown Services Center there was a lot of pressure,” Sternlieb recalled. “There were a lot of homeless people panhandling downtown and there were certain people in the business community that just wanted us to arrest everybody and I said ‘you can’t get in the way of people panhandling and doing stuff unless you give them an alternative.’ If they’re panhandling for food, let’s set up a feeding center. If they’re panhandling for bus fare, let’s work out how we’re going to get them bus fare so we can get them to a job. So, we brought 19 different agencies in as partners in the homelessness services center so that people could go to one place to get any service they needed and service providers could talk to each other about their cases.”  

Sternlieb believes establishing such a comprehensive services program in Ward 2 would be most effective in light of the current crisis.  

He cited recent psychological research on those experiencing acute housing or food insecurity. In basic survival mode people tend to lose their executive functioning. “When people are living in this situation where they’re basically hand-to-mouth, 100 percent of their brain activity is taken up by their daily survival needs. People say, ‘Why can’t you pull yourself up by your bootstraps?’ Well, you can’t…. Your brain actually doesn’t allow you to organize itself to do two or three steps in a row. All it is, is I have to figure out how I’m going to get my next meal.” Placing individuals experiencing homelessness into permanent housing can therefore be “a Herculean task,” Sternlieb recalled. 

Sternlieb’s empathetic approach to issues of homelessness, however, leads him to urge the city to resolve the tent encampment issue as soon as possible, rather than let it persist at the expense of public health and safety.  

“We believe that random encampments are not good public policy and there’s a reason that we have regulations against them,” he said. “My hope is that the city will come up with solutions very quickly to remove the encampments and to serve the folks in a safe and humane manner as quickly as possible,” he said. 

We’ve joined our colleagues at the other BIDs [on the District’s 11-member BID Council] to say “look, the encampments are unsafe, unhealthy, and unsustainable for the individuals who live in them and we’re pushing the city to find housing situations to move the people into, and to not allow for folks to camp, especially in residential or commercial areas,” Sternlieb said.  

You know, you can be helpful and humane but also recognize that the encampments, depending on where they are, have a serious negative impact on the economic fortunes of the businesses next to which they’re located,” he said.  

“There are public health concerns as well. I mean, where do people go to the bathroom? [The encampments] tend to be more dangerous places. There have been issues of sexual assault and of other crime. People get preyed upon. It’s not safe for the people in the encampments. It’s not a healthy environment for them or anyone else in the city.”  

“Some of us [on the BIDs] have suggested that the city make available some places for outdoor camping for folks who refuse to go indoors in a place that’s safe and then provide services in that place and don’t harass them and say ‘we’re not going to move this camp for 6 months, or something like that,’ in exchange for telling them ‘you can camp here, but you can’t camp there.’ But the city’s not going to do that,” Sternlieb said.  

“They don’t want to sanction any camping. So instead, they just don’t enforce it and they let people go wherever they want and create these small tent cities,” Sternlieb said. “Sometimes it’s one or two tents. Sometimes, if you go over to NOMA, they have 69 tents. They do a weekly survey. And last week there were 69 tents in this very small neighborhood. And that’s a lot of impact on a community.”  

In the last such survey, 12 tents were seen in Georgetown.  

To directly meet the needs of the unhoused, the Georgetown BID also supports a full-time-equivalent social worker at Friendship Place Welcome Center at 4713 Wisconsin Ave. NW. They work with Miriam’s Kitchen at 2041 Virginia Ave. NW as well. The Georgetown Ministry Center at 1041 Wisconsin Ave. NW is also a key partner. “We have a very good collaborative relationship with the GMC,” Sternlieb said.   

While the social workers at each site share notes and try to connect each unhoused client with resources, it remains profoundly difficult to bring folks off the street, Sternlieb emphasized. “I wish I could say it’s a smooth and seamless process, but it’s really very hard. Very hard. On a good day, if somebody is stable and just needs housing they might get them a hotel room for two or three months and some food cards… and, that’s the best case scenario. In most cases, you’re looking just for shelter and very basic stuff, like personal hygiene, or how do we get them cleaned up and get them a shower and do some laundry? And then, hopefully, you start building trust…”  




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