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D.C. homeless on high alert amid inauguration security concerns

by Carey L. Biron | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 20 January 2021 13:53 GMT

A U.S. Capitol police officer stands on the West Front of the Capitol before Joe Biden's presidential inauguration in Washington, U.S., January 20, 2021. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

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Rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol this month also harassed and verbally abused people living on the streets

By Carey L. Biron

WASHINGTON, Jan 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The attack on the U.S. Capitol earlier this month was traumatic for people across the country who watched the events unfold on TV and social media.

But for homeless communities in Washington D.C., it played out where they live - and raised concerns about what was to come with Wednesday's inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.

On the sidelines of the Jan. 6 riot, some among the city's homeless reported being harassed and verbally abused by the mob.

"Some clients had demonstrators literally walking through their living rooms," said Ceymone Dyce, director of homeless services at Pathways to Housing DC, a nonprofit.

Dyce's office received reports from homeless people of "verbal aggression" by rioters, and some filed police reports regarding damaged and stolen property.

The overtly racist overtones of the riots were not lost on Pathways' clients, most of whom are people of color, Dyce said.

The most recent tracking data from the National Coalition for the Homeless recorded nearly 1,800 attacks on homeless people by non-homeless people between 1999 and 2017, with the group saying the true number is likely far higher.

Such attacks are due to anti-homeless bias, as well as the unique vulnerability of those without homes, the coalition said in its 2018 report.

The events of Jan. 6 and ongoing threats of violence have also transformed the U.S. capital into a fortress in recent days, with the presence of tens of thousands of troops, helicopter surveillance and checkpoints.

This can be a problem for those sleeping rough, many who also have mental health concerns, Dyce said.

Homeless in tents are seen next to barricades used to secure the area near the White House ahead of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration, in Washington, U.S., January 17, 2021. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

"Because of street closures, people are displaced from where they live and sleep," she said.

"There's the stress of not knowing when they can return to those spots, not to mention knowing that our city might be a target of future violence by white supremacists."

On Monday, this heightened security surveillance briefly prompted an evacuation at the U.S. Capitol when a fire broke out in a homeless encampment a few blocks away.

In the run-up to the inauguration, Dyce said her office and homeless service providers throughout the city have undertaken unusual preparations.

They include coordinating with each other on an hourly basis, trying to move people off the streets wherever possible, and seeking to ensure that everyone has a few days' worth of food in case problems arise, she noted.

Some groups have put up fliers outlining emergency housing options, while others have been collecting unused subway cards to help people move out of harm's way - that group, a collective called Remora House, reported a "phenomenal" response.

The D.C. Department of Human Services, which oversees homeless services, did not respond to a request for comment.

Washington is no stranger to large-scale demonstrations, but "not like this," said Deborah Shore, executive director and founder of Sasha Bruce Youthwork, which works with homeless young people.

"This is a time in history when there's been this unmasking of terrible, endemic racist policies, and white supremacist ideas have been incited," she said by phone.

"And our young people are at the intersection of this history - homelessness among African Americans in this country is huge," she added.

"So, we've taken extra precautions for the potential of an emergency."


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(Reporting by Carey L. Biron @clbtea, Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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