$2 Million Art Above Homeless Tent Encampment Highlights DC’s Problems

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Tents are a permanent fixture beneath the bridges that support the train tracks feeding into Washington DC’s Union Station, particularly along the sidewalks in the rapidly developing NoMa neighborhood. Along the portions of M, L, and K Streets that are covered by railway overpasses in Northeast DC are dozens of tents — some taking over the entire width of the sidewalk, forcing pedestrians to step down into the street and dangerously close to oncoming traffic to get by.

Camping on public property is illegal in DC, but the police don’t typically crack down on tent-dwellers. Every now and again the city cleans things up by sweeping through heavily tented areas, ordering campers to leave and packing up any belongings left behind in storage, which residents can collect from the city up to 60 days later. Residents are given two weeks notice prior to the scheduled cleanup and the tents often return soon after.

Steps away from these densely populated overpasses are newly built, high-rise luxury apartments with studio units that rent out at close to $2,000 a month. Not long ago, the area was once a seedy bus station, but it has transformed into a millennial’s paradise. It features an outdoor beer garden, a massive REI store, bike lanes galore, a Trader Joe’s, and nearby Union Market that contains craft beer and cocktail sellers, a raw oyster bar, and numerous artisanal jewelry and home products.

The NoMa Parks Foundation, which oversees the distribution of a $50 million taxpayer-funded grant to purchase public land and build parks in the neighborhood, has set aside $2 million of that money to install artistic light displays or, as the foundation’s website calls it, “Underpass Art Parks,” to spruce up the dark tunnels.

A Tent Dweller Is Shocked At The $2 Million Sticker Price

One woman camped just outside of the L Street bridge, where she will likely be forced to vacate soon when the light installation project expands, was aghast at the $2 million sticker price for the project.

“That money could’ve been used for little huts or something,” said the woman, who asked to be identified only as a lady who’s been on the street for seven years. The city’s problems are “like cancer,” she says, adding that the sidewalk under the bridge often floods and that rat infestations have plagued the city for years. “You can’t cover it up, you’ve gotta get it out. Fix the problem, and then make it pretty.”

Yet “pretty” isn’t a word she would use for the nearly completed M Street art project, adding that she hopes the L Street project will “look better than that.”

“They say tents are illegal in the district, but who can pay $2,600 for a studio?” she said as she gazed at the high-rise apartments just blocks away outfitted with rooftop pools, indoor pet washing stations, and 24-hour concierge service.

Under the nearby K Street bridge, a notice hangs announcing the next cleanup is in three days. Dozens of tents and ramshackle shelters made with plywood and blankets line both sides of the sidewalk.

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