Dear PoPville – Advice on dealing with a threatening homeless woman?

Homeless in Purple
Photo by PoPville flickr user Michael Horsley

“Dear PoPville,

I’m wondering if anyone has advice on a homeless woman who has been parked outside of my apartment building on and off for the past couple of months. I’ve contacted the landlord, we’ve tried to get her into a homeless shelter and we’ve been successful a few times but she always comes back to our building within a few days. Multiple people from my building and the building next door have called the police but they said the only thing they can do is ask her to move off of the property. So then she just moves to the sidewalk in front of the building. She seemed harmless at first but recently the trash has been piling up and she’s been relieving herself in the tree boxes.

Tonight, I was out walking my dog and she started threatening me saying things like “I’m going to beat your ass” and “what the f*ck you looking at? I’ll kill you, bitch.” It was to the point where my dog was cowering behind me (granted, she’s a wimp) and a random passerby had to offer to help me get into my building. I got into my building, the stranger left and closed the door behind him and the homeless woman was banging on the apartment building door trying to get in and yelling obscenities.

I called the police and they said they would come talk to her but that there’s not really much they can do since they can’t arrest her and she can just walk out of a homeless shelter even if they find one that can take her in. I feel for her and realize that it’s just as much a mental health issue as it is a homelessness issue, and we have tried to help her, but tonight has brought it to the point where I no longer feel safe or comfortable walking into my building when she is around. Any advice on what to do?”

Ed. Note: I think we spoke about a similar situation not too long ago – but I can’t seem to find – if a better searcher than I can find the link and post it here I’d appreciate it. Also as in other similar situations perhaps the DC Mental Health Mobile Response Team could intervene:

Psychiatric Emergency Services (PES): 202-673-9319 (24hrs, 7 days per week)
Mobile Crisis Services (MCS): 202-673-9300 (9am -1am, 7 days per week)
Homeless Outreach Program (HOP): 202-673-9124 (9am -8pm , M-F)

58 Comment

  • Is your building by any chance on 19th st north of Florida? I’ve noticed a homeless woman essentially living in the tree box there the last few months. I have also noticed that people have left food out for her – which is a kind and well-meaning gesture, I have no doubt, but probably discourages her from seeking assistance elsewhere.

    • Yep, that’s the street I’m talking about. I’ve just been informed by my landlord that her parents live in one of the buildings and have disowned her, which is why she’s chosen this street to live on. Makes things even more sad/complicated.

      • She was trying to set up on Vernon Street last night, but the police asked her to move since she was on private property.

      • Ah yes, I know her. She likes to curse at my dog. Sorry you were threatened by her – definitely a tough situation.

  • You can also contact Green Door
    N Street Villeage may also have tips.
    Any of these, or the agencies Prince of Petworth, lists may already have a record for her.
    If DC mental health staff coome, they do an assessment, which they can tell you about.

  • PoP, is this the recent thread you were thinking of?

  • If you TRULY think that she’s a danger to herself or others, call (202) 673-9319, the 24-hour hotline for the Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program. Describe her behavior and location — and this is important — be prepared to stick around to identify her to the responders. They’ll do an assessment and determine if she’s in need of an involuntary psychiatric hold. Be prepared, however, for them to say that she’s harmless (and she probably is). If so, you may have no choice but to chalk it up to bad luck on everyone’s part (especially hers) and live with it.

    • Yes, if she’s threatening again, the District can FD-12 her and hold her for 24 hours to check on her mental health. What a sad, sad story.

    • Can’t you press charges if she threatens to kill you?

      • Probably not. I have had 2 drivers threaten to kill me (a pedestrian) and one time I called the cops and they basically laughed at me.

  • Tonight, I was out walking my dog and she started threatening me saying things like “I’m going to beat your ass” and “what the f*ck you looking at? I’ll kill you, bitch.”

    Isn’t that a verbal threat? Can’t she be arrested for that?

    • In some jurisdictions that qualifies as assault, so yes, she can be arrested and charged. I don’t know for sure whether that does in DC.

    • Arresting her won’t do anything. She’ll be brought to a police district, processed, and sent on her way with a summons to appear — which will be promptly discarded. She will then return to your doorway and the cycle will repeat itself in a day or 2.

      She’s clearly mentally ill and the criminal justice system isn’t very good at dealing with people with chronic mental illnesses. The threats to indicate her danger to others, however, so call the number above and hope that the responders see the same behavior you do. Having worked in the field (several decades ago, I admit) I can tell you that this process is frustrating. It’s like taking your car to the mechanic and the problem that you’re experiencing doesn’t repeat itself. So you leave, only to have it happen on the way home. Often in cases like this the person becomes all sweetness and light when she realizes that she could be put away, only to resume the threatening behavior as soon as the responders leave. So be persistent, and good luck.

      • “The criminal justice system isn’t very good at dealing with the mentally ill”…..truer words haven’t been spoken for a long time on PoPville, and this is the reason why DC (and most of the US) has such an entrenched homeless population. How I wish our political leaders would recognize the need for some sort of mental health reform to help alleviate this suffering.

    • DC has a “simple assault” law that includes threats. ( It’s $1,000 or a maximum of not more than 180 days in prison. However, this is going to be time-consuming for you if you want to go through this process. Police may not be willing to arrest the person if you don’t have witnesses to corroborate the threats you heard. You will be required to press charges, and appear in court. It is possible – even likely – in DC that this woman would be released on parole and be right back there within day before a trial even happens. It is possible she will never appear in court. So yes, she CAN be arrested for that, but it may actually be the most effective course of action here.

    • She is mentally ill. Have you found out what her name is? Maybe you should talk to her a bit and find out something about her. Offer her some food or clean clothes.

      • Bruno, while you might think that is helping, you’re actually making her problem worse by enabling her stay outside of a healthcare facility. That logic is as bad as giving the drunk on the corner $2 and telling him to buy a sandwich, no just like with an addict that needs rehab. This woman needs help, she does not need food, clothes or anything else that will dissuade her from accepting said help and treatment.

        • I thought it was clear, but I offered these suggestions as means to then get her to more help. Also, to offer someone food and clothes if they are sick and on the street is kind. It is not analogous to offering alcohol or drugs. Building a relationship with the mentally ill is what the case workers do too. You can’t help someone without talking to them.

          • Wait, Bruno- aren’t you the one who suggested in a post about a homeless guy months ago that people should just chip in and buy the guy a hotel room? I remember thinking that comment was breathtakingly naive. That should give some context to others who are wondering about Bruno’s comment above…

          • And Bruno, if you are a 15 year-old girl writing well-intentioned advice from the suburbs, I apologize for offending your sensibilities. I am confident that you, too, will learn about the real world in due time.

      • I get where you’re coming from, but I disagree with this advice. OP has already been threatened, and unless she’s trained in deescalating mentally ill people it’s not worth the risk. I’m not saying that this woman is definitely dangerous — and in fact she’s probably not — but not everyone is equipped to handle everyone else’s problems, which is why we have things like shelter and mental health hotlines in the first place. Best to let the pros handle it sometimes.

      • The mentally ill aren’t cute feral cats. They’re deeply messed up people who need treatment, not food. Giving clothes and food to a clearly disturbed homeless person yourself has got to be really low on the list of potential next steps. It increases your exposure to someone whose capacity and intent to do you harm is unclear, and encourages the same person to keep coming back.

      • Right, in brief moments between foaming obscenities and death threats, take some time to really get to know her.

        You might ask things like, “what’s your favorite color?” Or, “I think ‘mutilate’ is an interesting word too. Do you think it’s from Latin?” Or even, “gosh, did you get that knife at Crate & Barrel? The detailing is exquisite.”

        Look, from the description this doesn’t sound like it is Mr. Wendell. This lady sounds, as you say, mentally ill. Kindness is admirable, but, as far as I know, it’s not the most effective treatment of schizophrenia.

        • When I lived in chicago a few years ago there was a building that had this problem. Eventually the homeless guy got cold one night, and burned some of the money passerbys gave him to start a fire. Problem was he did it next to the building, burning the entire thing down and killing a few people. My advice, while these people have problems and it’s sad, you need to do whatever you can to keep her away from your building. You never know what someone will do, so I’d tell the people giving her food and clothes to stop.

  • Is this in Woodley Park? I’ve seen a crazy aggressive woman there, shouting profanity at all passers-by.

  • There was a lady in poop-soaked pants yelling very similar things in the Archives metro station this morning. If I see her again, I’ll let her know the party’s at your building.

  • If this is the woman at 19th and Fl , I’m another resident of the building and have tried calling every number on that list to ask for guidance or assistance in getting her help. The Mobile Mental Health crisis folks essentially told me several times that if she is homeless and not eminently threatening to commit suicide or harm others (she’s never threatened me), she doesn’t fall into their domain. They seemed to be strongly implying that they were more of a suicide hotline than a resource for homeless individuals. I followed up several times with the Homeless Outreach folks but, as far as I know, they never came to assess her. And, when (at the direction of the mobile MH unit) I called 911 and asked for an ambulance to give her a psychiatric assessment, they came and seemed to decide she wasn’t ill enough to go to the hospital.

    One thing the landlord can do is get a bar order to have her barred from the property and have it witnessed by a police officer. I have one and have left a copy for the landlord (I’m assuming this is the same building– if not, it’s available online, just google “bar order DC”), but this is a way we could follow up further. Anyway, more just a general comment on how hard it has been to get assistance/services for the homeless from the DC government. Everyone was friendly, but passed the buck.

    • That’s the woman I’m talking about. The landlord said he’s coming by tomorrow so hopefully he does something with the bar order.
      I’ll also try reaching out to The Mobile Mental Health crisis. Maybe they’ll be more willing to do something since she’s threatened me now (thought if they’re really more of a suicide hotline then I’m not sure if it’ll do any good).
      I sent out an email to an email list for residents earlier but it’s incomplete so not sure if you’re on it.

    • There’s a bar order on U Street between 12th and 11th for “Shorty,” the man who holds the door open at 7-11 and asks for change, because he can get aggressive. Though, every day he returns. The cops tell him to move, but then he comes back. I don’t even think he’s mentally ill… so, good luck.

  • In the Reagan era, the rules for hospitalizing the mentally ill changed. For better or worse, it is a lot more difficult now. As other people have noted, the person has to be a threat to themslevs and/or others.

    To the anonymous poster above, yes, that was I who suggested you consider getting a room for homeless people. I have done this myself.

    • It actually started during the Carter administration (and in some limited ways, even before that) as a supposedly more humane way to treat the mentally ill instead of warehousing them. The (incredibly naive) theory was that people with chronic mental illnesses were better off cared for by their families than by institutions. The problem these geniuses overlooked was that in many cases the families didn’t want anything to do with their mentally ill relatives — and, in fairness, often times vice versa — and that was if they were equipped financially and otherwise equipped to handle them in the first place. Reagan just finished what the social experimenters started by cutting domestic social spending to the point where the safety net that was supposed to remain became nonexistent.

      • Yes, you can’t blame deinstitutionalization on any particular party or politician. The idea was emerging in the 1960s for the aforementioned reasons Anon (3:06) uses- namely, that people had this naive idea that ‘freeing’ the homeless would serve them better than institutionalized care. Unfortunately, this never worked in practice. There are some serious mental illnesses out there that are almost impossible to deal with outside a hospital. Schizophrenia, for example, requires the patient to take medicine with sometimes less than great side effects. Once on the meds, they usually think they’re ok and don’t need to take the meds. In some cases, a successfully treated schizophrenic has to rely on the constant supervision of a relative to ensure they take their drugs. This is just not feasible in many cases. If the Left wanted to deinstitutionalize, the Right never opposed it because they thought it would save money. The seriously mentally ill are the ones who were on the losing end of this.

      • anonymouse_dianne

        It actually started under Kennedy. You might try contacting Creigh Deeds, this is his bailiwick these days.

  • Man, can’t stand this NIMBY-ism.

  • Does this woman by any chance wear a purple coat? There was a lady around Logan Circle a few weeks ago harassing me and my dog, along with several others. I’d never seen her before then, and I haven’t seen her since.

    • Hmm, she’s usually wearing all black but it’s always been dark out when I see her so it’s possible that it’s a purple coat.

  • I’m really impressed by some of the considerate and practical suggestions and actions posted by the OP and several commentators. And hopefully, after a woeful number of suggestions to the contrary, we’ve collectively determined, by means of popular support, that the mentally ill do, in fact, need food. Also, you might want to consider writing your councilperson, even if don’t expect they will be able to assist you in the immediate future.

  • I live nearby as well. So now that we’ve established that it’s ok to verbally threaten people in the district, can we discuss why the police and aforementioned mental health providers have no problem allowing this woman to poop on the sidewalk and walk around with her pants around her ankles in broad daylight. Not exaggerating, one Sunday afternoon when it was hot out she dropped trow and exposed herself to passersby for about an hour. Public defication and indecent exposure are crimes, plain and simple. And a few blocks from a grade school no less.

    • And directly across from the hilton (albeit the loading docks / gym / pool) but still. You think they would also want to resolve the situation for their customers / suppliers.

    • Just call 911 every time she does anything illegal

      they can’t ignore it forever, eventually they’ll do something with her just to stop the calls

  • Have the building manager or owner (has to be authorized) call MPD and have them issue a barring notice or a stay away notice for the property. When served with the barring notice (basically a restraining order from a property), she will be arrested for unlawfully entry when she was is within 100 feet of the premises.

  • I’m not sure if it’s the case for a general restraining order, but if you get a protective order (which is only for domestic violence situations), the court can order the person to get a mental health evaluation and any mental health services the Court Services and Offender Supervising Agency deems necessary. I don’t know much about the standards for a general restraining order, but it sounds like you might have enough cause to get one. I’d recommend speaking with a lawyer about it.

    In the case of a domestic violence protective order, if the person doesn’t show up for a hearing (which it seems unlikely this woman will do), the judge can issue a default order. The next time you see her, you call the police and tell them there’s a bench warrant out for her, and they take her to the court to get served, at which point they start the process of getting her a mental health evaluation.

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