A homeless woman in the Washington, D.C. area died in the Arlington County Detention Center in late August while waiting for her court date.
The death of Abonesh Woldegeorges, 73, underscores the harsh reality homeless people face in jurisdictions that choose to criminalize homelessness instead of providing supportive services. It also raises questions about the time-consuming nature of the U.S. legal system, especially when an individual is only charged with misdemeanor offenses.
“When you have people who don’t have beds to sleep in, you find them sleeping in the airport or the Metro, and it’s considered trespassing,” Arlington Chief Public Defender Brad Haywood, who represented Woldegeorges, told the Washington Post. “Then it ends up in the sheriff’s lap.”
The Post reported that Woldegeorges had several run-ins with law enforcement. She had previously been warned to stay away from Reagan National Airport in Arlington after being caught trespassing on the property after it was closed. Woldegeorges was also prohibited from entering Dulles International Airport in Washington D.C. for similar reasons, according to the Post.
Woldegeorges was arrested and booked in the Loudoun County jail in May after police conducted a “welfare check” on her at Dulles airport, the Post reported. She was later granted bail and then charged for failing to appear at her next court hearing on July 19. Police encountered her on August 13 at Reagan National Airport. She was then arrested and sent to the Arlington jail.
Arlington Commonwealth’s attorney, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, told the Post that the incident symbolized how few resources are available for homeless people in the area.
“I also am saddened and frustrated that our jails have become our de facto shelters and hospitals for our communities,” Dehghani-Tafti said.
Woldegeorges was granted a personal recognizance bond in mid-August—meaning that she could have left the Arlington jail without paying anything if there was no other legal reason to keep her.
However, a spokesperson for the jail said she was being held so officials could transfer her to Loudon County over her alleged failure to appear. She was supposed to be held for only five days, which Loudon County officials said isn’t uncommon.
The Post reported that Woldegeorges collapsed in the jail while waiting for her transfer. Police attempted to resuscitate her at the jail before transferring to a local hospital, where she was pronounced dead upon arrival. She is the eighth person to die in the jail over the last eight years.
“We have three main questions,” NAACP Arlington Branch President Michael Hemminger told the Post. “One: Why was Ms. Woldegeorges, a 73-year-old woman suffering from mental illness, held in the jail for so long for such petty charges? Two: Why is Arlington County criminalizing homelessness? Three: Why do these incidents at the jail exclusively impact people of color?”
The NAACP previously called for Arlington officials to investigate deaths at the county jail in 2022.
The Arlington County Sheriff’s Office told local news station WTOP that they are cooperating “with all aspects” of a local police investigation into Woldegeorges’ death. The office also expressed “profound sadness” for Woldegeorges’ family following her death.
“We’re going to let the investigation take its course, and we’re going to make sure that it’s proper and thorough,” Hemminger said. “We’ll be conducting our own investigation, and if we find that there were violations, then we will hold those responsible people accountable.”
How You Can Help
The pandemic proved that we need to rethink housing in the U.S. It also showed that aid programs work when providing agencies and service organizations with sufficient funds and clear guidance on spending aid dollars.
Contact your officials and representatives. Tell them you support keeping many of the pandemic-related aid programs in place for future use. They have proven effective at keeping people housed, which is the first step to ending homelessness.