Instead, he glanced over his shoulder, back at the park across the street — another small triangular plot on Massachusetts Avenue managed by the National Park Service — and shook his head. Parker, 44, and several of the other homeless residents had moved from the green space on Second Street NE several months earlier, when the National Park Service put up eviction notices and told the tent-dwellers they had to go.
This week, he said, hit him like deja vu.
“They done kicked me out of so many places so many times,” he said. “It’s just the way it is now.”
On Friday morning, federal workers and police officers arrived to clear the park. Sean P. McGinty, a spokesperson with the National Park Service, said although the agency has tried to limit how often homeless encampments are cleared during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, complaints from neighbors in the Capitol Hill community prompted city officials from the D.C. Department of Human Services to reach out to their federal counterparts, urging them to evacuate the encampment.
Signs bearing the official seal of the National Park Service went up last week. They said the agency would close the park “to remedy hazardous conditions and provide needed maintenance.” The area would remain closed, the notice continued, “until the safety hazard and other resource damage is addressed.”
By 10 a.m., the nylon tents that for months packed together at the center of the park had been removed by their owners or federal maintenance crews. Heaps of discarded food scraps, clothes, linens and other items were raked up and loaded into a trash compactor. Yellow caution tape stretched across a gap in the fence that federal officials said would soon be replaced with another panel of chain-link.
Outreach workers from DHS made efforts to “engage” residents ahead of the evacuation date and “will continue to support them along their journey towards independence and housing stability," spokeswoman Sward Tondoneh wrote in an emailed statement after this article was published Friday. Tondoneh did not elaborate about services or the District’s involvement in requesting the park be cleared.
D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) watched as Parker and other residents hustled back and forth to a waiting U-Haul truck, loading tents, mattresses and whatever else they could salvage into the back. A group of them had pooled money to rent the truck, several said, to help them move to a new location.
Silverman expressed frustration that no other D.C. officials were on-site Friday to offer aid to the residents. She pointed to the mayor’s new pilot program, which launched last week when city officials cleared a longtime encampment in NoMa and sought to offer hotel rooms or apartments to more than two dozen homeless individuals while also working to enroll them in social welfare programs.
But the pilot is only available to homeless individuals who had been living in tents at three preselected encampments on or before the sign-up deadline in late August. It has been widely criticized as rushed. When the program launched, the list that DHS has been using to administer emergency housing vouchers contained just over 100 names.
“We need to have a strategy to move folks into housing, otherwise this is a problem that just moves down the block,” Silverman said Friday. “I agree with the mission of the pilot — we have to get folks into housing and the supportive services they need — but we have 190 encampments in this city. We need a stronger strategy for the other 187 while we see how this pilot is going to work.”
On Tuesday, eight members of the D.C. Council sent a letter to Wayne Turnage, the deputy mayor for Health and Human Services, asking for more details about how the mayor’s office intends to proceed with clearing the other two encampments.
For their part, the homeless people camped out at the Capitol Hill park had only heard one thing about the pilot program: that a homeless man was scooped up by a front-loader during the District’s sweep.
As they debated earlier this week about where the group should relocate to, several expressed concern about moving onto city property. Others argued it would be better than federal land.
“We’re just as likely to get evicted from there as anywhere else in the city,” Josh Coburn, 39, said to his fellow tent-dwellers.
Parker looked away. David Graves, 42, nodded.
Like Parker, most of the other men in the group had moved to the small park on Massachusetts Avenue after being kicked out of the park across the street. Park Service officials said sick trees with falling branches posed a safety risk to the homeless individuals who were staying there — and passersby coming through the grounds — so they closed the park.
Before that, Coburn said, he slept in a tent on the lawn outside of Union Station. In total, he estimates he’s lived at three or more different parks that have been cleared over the past year.
Graves said he tried living in D.C. shelters when he first became homeless, but it reminded him too much of jail. He felt trapped and frustrated by what he described as “shady” behavior among staff. He applied for a housing voucher, he said, and thought camping on the street would be a good stopgap until he got his own place. He’s been waiting for two years.
“We’re going to set up camp again, and again and probably again,” Coburn said.
Several people who had been living in the park decided to set off on their own Friday. Some went to make camp outside Union Station. Others will try their luck at other encampments in downtown D.C.
The group of men who decided to stick together settled on a strip of grass near the Interstate 695 overpass by the Marine Barracks in Southeast Washington. It is out of the way, they figured. Maybe they will get to stay.
Community organizers and mutual aid outreach volunteers who regularly provide food and supplies to the homeless on Capitol Hill pointed out that the city had already evicted homeless campers in that area earlier this year.
“The police told me to go to Union Station, then they dispersed the camp there. We’ve asked outreach workers from the mayor’s office and Community Connections and [the D.C. police department] where we should go,” Coburn said. “Even people from the same agency give us different answers.”
As he loaded the last of his items into the moving truck, Parker looked around at the cleared-out grounds. Empty, just like they found it, just like the next place they would set up camp, hoping to stay for a while.