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Homeless camp cleared at Union Station: ‘We don’t have nowhere to go’

Robert Wade, 62, at the Columbus Circle encampment Tuesday night. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
6 min

The garbage truck rumbled to a stop at the edge of the nearest tent Wednesday morning, and a half-dozen National Park Service employees got to work.

Wearing protective suits and masks, they began pitching everything into the truck — blankets and trash, tarps and tent poles — as people watched the removal of a homeless encampment that had grown over the past two years at Columbus Circle in D.C.

“Hold up! Hold up!” shouted Ami Angell, the executive director of the nonprofit H3 Project and one of a few homeless-outreach advocates on-site. “We were told NPS would hold untended items for 60 days?”

The workers shrugged and continued dismantling the tent, as Angell grabbed an abandoned suitcase and went looking for a supervisor. But as the morning proceeded, the speedy clearing of the encampment captured the District’s homelessness issue in microcosm: Here, outside Union Station’s columned gateway to the nation’s capital, within sight of its seat of government, the needs of the city’s poorest remained visibly unmet.

“I don’t get mad at the District for moving people, because all they do is trash it, honestly,” said Toni Irons, 53, who had been living at the Columbus Circle camp for a month and a half. “But I don’t think they should move us when we don’t have nowhere to go.”

Wednesday’s removal of the Columbus Circle encampment signaled to many advocates and homeless Washingtonians that the clearings were back on, after a long pause. The District stops the removals during cold-weather months, starting Nov. 1, and pandemic-related guidance from the federal government had for the past two years advised agencies such as the Park Service to allow people to stay put, rather than forcing them to move to potentially less safe environments or crowded indoor shelters.

Outreach workers from Pathways to Housing, one of the largest homeless-services providers in the D.C. area, had spent days coaxing about 35 encampment residents to vacate the site ahead of the Wednesday morning deadline. Because Columbus Circle is federal property, the Park Service oversees maintenance and the enforcement of no-camping rules.

For some of the people living in the encampment, Union Station wasn’t their first stop. Several told caseworkers they had stayed at other encampments until those were cleared in the fall. Others said their previous campsites had become so crowded that they decided to leave, according to Christy Respress, the executive director of Pathways.

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On Wednesday morning, Tommy Richard, 66, stood watching the removal near the shopping cart that held his possessions. “They’ve had the signs up for a while” warning of the June 1 camp removal, Richard said, and many people had taken down their tents or left in recent days. Richard, who said he has been homeless since 2013, was not sure where he would go next. “I guess I’ll figure something out,” he said.

A second encampment, downtown at 11th Street and New York Avenue NW, also was cleared Wednesday.

Experts say those who end up sleeping on the street typically are averse to other housing options, including shelters, for a variety of reasons that advocates refer to as “the four P’s”: pets, partners, property and, more recently, the pandemic.

“People are looking for safety. They’re looking for well-lit areas, well-traveled areas, access to resources,” Respress said. “By the time someone is living in a tent, if that’s the best option they can come up with, it means the other options do not work for them.”

Being forced to leave amid the chaos of an encampment removal — with garbage trucks waiting to collect refuse and workers in protective suits lined up to clear out tents — can be traumatic for people who are already among the most vulnerable in the city, Respress said.

A handful of encampment residents had recently been approved for housing vouchers, officials said, and caseworkers were trying to secure temporary housing for them at apartments meant to bridge the gap between homelessness and more permanent places to live.

Others were deemed medically at risk, prompting outreach workers to offer to move them into hotel rooms, funded by D.C.'s Pandemic Emergency Program for Medically Vulnerable Individuals, instead of traditional congregate shelter facilities.

Those with few other options, Respress said, were encouraged to leave on their own terms ahead of the Wednesday morning deadline. Caseworkers offered to help such individuals transport or store their belongings, she said.

“Our staff is literally with each person talking through questions, like, have you found another spot? Have you considered shelter? Do you want to reconsider shelter? Do you need storage? Do you have enough bags? Can you pack up your own tent? Can we help you?” Respress said in a call Tuesday. “We don’t want people to be rushed. We don’t want them to pack up their things in a rush. We don’t want them to put things in storage if they don’t want them there.”

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Respress said encampment clearings are inherently disruptive and make it harder to engage people in systems that can help them obtain housing, health care, addiction treatment and employment support, among other things.

“It’s very hard to find people sometimes when they’re being forced to move constantly,” Respress said. “It’s a human game of shuffleboard, which is not healthy.”

Over the past two years, homelessness in the District has steadily declined, driven largely by a steep drop in family homelessness. But encampments, one of the most visible forms of homelessness, have grown.

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Wayne Turnage, D.C.'s deputy mayor for health and human services, has said the number of encampments increased by more than 40 percent from 2020 to 2021.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) cleared out some of the city’s largest encampments last fall as part of a $3.9 million pilot program, which turned specific sites into no-camping zones and offered one-year leases to people through the District’s rapid rehousing program. As of last month, the program had placed 99 people in apartments, according to D.C. officials.

In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Bowser declined to say whether she would expand or continue the program to address other encampments.

Local advocacy groups, homeless-outreach workers and the American Civil Liberties Union have opposed the program, calling the mayor’s efforts to clear some of the District’s largest encampments harmful. Despite that mounting pressure, the D.C. Council voted in December not to limit the mayor’s authority to remove the camps.

As temperatures rose Wednesday morning, outreach workers helped encampment residents pack their belongings while the removal work continued. H3 Project’s Angell eventually confirmed with a Park Service supervisor that items left behind would be held for 60 days. But the lack of communication between the individuals setting policy and those executing it was troublesome, she said.

“There are some good ideas on the top level, but it’s not getting to the lower levels,” Angell said. “We need more support, and we’re not seeing it today.”