“People would come here and take pictures of the signs and then walk away. They wouldn’t even look at us,” said Gasim Hashim, 59, a chronically homeless man who spent nearly three years sleeping in the plaza. “Save whose plaza? Save what? You’re using people for your own advantage. But who’s going to be kicked out next week? No one over here has anywhere to go.”
The 4,000-square-foot plaza, attached to a shuttered SunTrust bank branch in Northwest Washington, has been at the center of a years-long battle over whether the parcel belongs to a corporation or the public. Lawsuits have wound their way through the courts. An appeal filed by two groups of neighbors — Adams Morgan for Reasonable Development and the Kalorama Citizens Association — is still pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
The space has been used for farmers markets, festivals, concerts, community gatherings, displays of public art. In 1967, Jimi Hendrix played in a theater that once stood there.
In recent months, protesters opposing racial and economic injustice have gathered in the plaza for marches and demonstrations.
But Truist, the bank that owns the land, wants to move forward with its plans to sell it to a group of developers intent on erecting a 54-unit condo building at the corner of 18th Street and Columbia Road NW.
Truist has pointed to the small encampment as a liability, according to D.C. Councilwoman Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), that officials decided needs to be cleared before any plans can proceed. District officials were able to get the company to delay evictions for about six months, while nonprofits like Miriam’s Kitchen worked to enroll the homeless residents in housing programs.
Time ran out earlier this month, when Truist put up bright orange placards announcing a deadline to clear the square: “No person will be allowed to remain on this site after 12 p.m. on September 22, 2021.”
In an emailed statement, Truist spokesperson Kyle Tarrance said: “We have worked closely with local civic and nonprofit leaders to provide respectful, safe and compassionate assistance for the transition of the unhoused. These steps are necessary as the company prepares to sell the property.”
Vikram Surya Chiruvolu, a community advocate and former co-facilitator of the Adams Morgan for Reasonable Development group, which sued Truist to stop the sale of the plot to developers, has called on city officials to do more to stop the fence from going up. He talked about all that the neighborhood stands to lose: a gathering space, a cultural center, a hub for philanthropy and activism.
He also said he worries about the handful of people who live in tents in the square. He’s not sure where they would go, he said.
“They don’t want to be forced out,” he said. “It’s just inviting unrest and trauma.”
But Nadeau, who represents Adams Morgan and chairs the council’s Health and Human Services Committee, said there’s not much more she can do. She tried to persuade Truist to hold off putting fences up until construction began, but she says the company wouldn’t budge.
She pushed to allocate more resources for homeless services and relocation programs in the next fiscal year budget — but those dollars don’t kick in until Oct. 1, more than a week after the Adams Morgan plaza is scheduled to be cleared.
Come move-out day, she said, it’s unlikely the unhoused will have somewhere more permanent to go.
“There are more housing tools than ever, but that doesn’t mean it’s aligning with the timing that people need them,” said Nadeau, who pointed to the District’s housing voucher program as a solution that often moves too slowly for people in dire straits. “Ultimately [engagement] is what leads to people accepting the help we have, combined with putting more resources into ending chronic homelessness. It has got to be both. If we have a bucket of money, but we haven’t evaluated or built trust with them, then we’re not going to be able to house them.”
Miriam’s Kitchen, founded in 1983 with the mission of eradicating chronic homelessness, organizes street outreach teams throughout the Northeast and Northwest quadrants of the city. Since the Sept. 22 clear-out day was announced, outreach workers have been talking with the unhoused about what they need in the short-term, said Adam Rocap, the nonprofit’s deputy director.
Often, people experiencing homelessness do not trust institutions — governmental or otherwise — to follow through on their promises. Other times, he said, gathering the documentation necessary to enroll people in housing programs can be nearly impossible.
“The first barrier we typically run into in trying to get people into permanent housing is there are far fewer slots in any housing program than there are people who need it,” Rocap said. “But even after someone is matched to a program, are they willing to trust a government program or an outreach worker when in so many different ways throughout their life, the system or the government has failed them?”
For the people at the Adams Morgan plaza encampment, trust in outside groups has dried up as a steady stream of people with an agenda of their own have stopped by the camp.
“People think they know what we want, but they don’t come here and talk to us and ask us what we need,” said Hashim, a building contractor from Sudan who lived at the plaza for three years before accepting an offer to move onto a friend’s couch.
His cousin, Shaun Jenkins, still lives in a camouflage-patterned tent pitched on the hard concrete. On Wednesday, the two gathered up chalk and donated art supplies to draft their own message.
Their plan is to transform the circular center of the plaza into a clock face. Next to that, they will write “Time Is of the Essence” in bright, bold letters. At the center of the display, Hashim said, a cardboard box with a small slit in the center will accept cash donations for the homeless who will soon be forced out.
Residents estimate on a given day there may be about a half-dozen people staying in the plaza, although that number has dwindled as the date the fence is scheduled to go up has gotten closer Some have slept at the plaza for months, or even years. Others are newcomers.
Throughout the pandemic, homeless residents said, several have come to view the plaza as something of a refuge — a safer alternative to crowded shelters where, they said, the deadly coronavirus may spread more quickly. The small space and low number of people make it easier to navigate than larger encampments where crime and other issues are more common, they said.
“We don’t need sympathy. We don’t need empathy. We need action, direct donations,” he said. “All of these people want to speak on our behalf, but we don’t see any actual progress.”
Of the six or so people still sleeping at the plaza, most said they haven’t yet worked out what they’re going to do on Wednesday. They can’t think that far ahead.
Instead, they turned their attention to what’s in front of them, something they can control: painting over the yellow cardboard box that’s open for donations.