The Wash
Activists say hand-washing stations at tent encampments in DC – like one on O Street and New Jersey Avenue in the Shaw neighborhood – have gone unserviced for weeks or even months. (Kimberly Cataudella / The Wash)

No soap, water in hand-washing stations at Ward 2 tent encampments

Federal guidelines encourage the city to provide soap, water and hand sanitizer to those living in tent encampments with more than 10 individuals.

Homeless individuals living in tent encampments in Ward 2 are asking the city for better sanitation. Residents of an encampment at Shaw’s O Street & New Jersey Avenue NW are asking the city for water and soap in their hand-washing station, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Ward 2 Mutual Aid and the People for Fairness Coalition, two advocacy groups that focus on community assistance over government intervention, plan visits to the Shaw, Foggy Bottom and NoMa neighborhood encampments each week. They aim to know the residents living there, address their needs and work to ensure they are met. Two Ward 2-area encampments currently need water in their hand-washing stations, and the third needs increased toilet sanitation.

“The hand-washing stations at the O Street and NoMa encampments don’t have water. The Foggy Bottom encampment is the only one with water,” activist Qaadir El-Amin, 41, said. “We check each week when we go out there, and O Street hasn’t had water for a while.” 

Reggie Black, the People for Fairness Coalition’s advocacy director, wonders if the issue is negligence “on the front line” or from the District’s Department of Health and Human Services, which he said manages the hand-washing stations and portable toilets. 

This hand-washing station at the Shaw-area tent encampment has not been serviced for weeks, members of the PFFC said. It did not have soap or water when The Wash visited on Oct. 31. (Kimberly Cataudella / The Wash)

Washing with soap and water is one of the most important ways to keep yourself safe – and protect others – from the coronavirus, according to the CDC. If individuals experiencing homelessness cannot properly keep clean by washing their hands regularly – like so many can do in their homes – they can contribute to the spread of the deadly virus. 

“I look at these hand-washing stations every week. I check for water, and it doesn’t come out. I check for soap, and the soap isn’t there,” Black said. “Why are you allowing this hand-washing station to be this neglected?” 

The Wash visited the Shaw-area encampment at O Street & New Jersey Avenue NW on Oct. 31, and a hand-washing station’s service record sticker indicated the last date of service was Aug. 3.

The District’s Department of Health and Human Services’ public information officer did not respond to requests for comment. 

Ward 2 Mutual Aid and the People for Fairness Coalition, or PFFC, promote community by “knowing your neighbor, and when you know your neighbor, you don’t hate or discriminate against your neighbor,” said El-Amin, who is a member of each organization.

Ward 2 Mutual Aid volunteers and members of the PFFC gather items to distribute to residents of the Foggy Bottom tent encampments on Oct. 30. Qaadir El-Amin, pictured in the striped hat, merged the work of the two groups last month. (Kimberly Cataudella / The Wash)

El-Amin merged the work of the two groups in early October. They use monetary donations to buy supplies, which they distribute during their visits. 

The two groups bring toiletry and food donations to Shaw on Saturdays, NoMa on Sundays and Foggy Bottom on Fridays. Monetary and item donations allow the groups to make individual bags that include toilet paper, baby wipes, water bottles, first aid kits, snacks and more. 

Those living at the tent encampments on E & 20th Street NW want more frequent sanitation and a sturdier toilet, some said. 

“The port-o-potties we have are for events, while we’re using them every day. I see someone from the city come and clean them up only once each week,” Marianna Worthington, 59, said. She said she’s been living in the E & 20th Street encampment for almost two years. “I’m thankful for all that the city does to help us, … but we need working sinks and flushable toilets.” 

The PFFC wants the city to service each hand-washing station at least five times each week, Black said. 

Mutual aid in Washington

Ward 2 Mutual Aid began their work after Serve Your City – a nonprofit that runs Ward 6 Mutual Aid in partnership with many other organizations – donated thousands of dollars to the group. This money has gone toward food, masks and other supplies for homeless residents in the District. Without this donation to spearhead Ward 2 Mutual Aid’s work, the organization likely would not have identified the unserviced hand-washing stations and portable toilets. 

Serve Your City’s mission is “Solidarity, not charity!” emphasizing meeting people where they are and supporting them – with money, resources or even a listening ear – instead of “saving” them. 

“Everyone deserves not to worry about the basics. Housing and eating are human rights, and it shouldn’t be commodified for the privileged class,” said Maurice Cook, Serve Your City’s executive director.

“It’s a lofty goal, but we can do it over time,” Cook said. “Folks who are recipients of [our work] don’t have to worry about the basics quite as much, then they have more capacity to build and support others.”

Serve Your City hosted a donation drive on Oct. 24 in Capitol Hill. Through monetary and item donations, the nonprofit had masks, hand sanitizer and food items available for anyone in need to pick up. (Kimberly Cataudella / The Wash)

Serve Your City partners extensively with Ward 6 Mutual Aid to combat socioeconomic issues in Capitol Hill and surrounding areas. The group recently organized an Afrocentric book drive, highlighting Black and Brown individuals in children’s literature.

“We want to create a system that relies on your community instead of law enforcement,” said Nathan Park, 24, who volunteers with Ward 2 Mutual Aid. “When the pandemic hit, the thinking was not only how will we take care of ourselves, but how are we going to take care of everyone?” 

For more information or to learn how to get involved: 

Ward 2 Mutual Aid – 

People for Fairness Coalition – 

Serve Your City –

Kimberly Cataudella

Kimberly Cataudella (she/her) is covering Shaw and U Street for The Wash while completing her master's degree in investigative journalism at American University.

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