Photo of a D.C. outreach worker approaching a tent to speak with the resident who lives there.
Eric Falquero

More than a dozen people who had sought refuge next to Union Station were evicted from their encampment under the H Street overpass on Thursday morning. The effort was coordinated by the office of Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services (DMHHS) Brenda Donald on behalf of Mayor Muriel Bowser.

Cleanup efforts began promptly at 10 a.m., but city and nonprofit outreach workers arrived hours earlier to connect camp residents with various homeless services. They worked tirelessly to help prepare campers for the move by cleaning, packing and labeling their belongings.

Chris Parks, who works across the street, had crowdfunded and supplied most of the tents to camp residents at the start of winter, and befriended many of them. He claimed that the DMHHS office had told him weeks ago that as long as people’s belonging’s were organized and clearly marked, no one would be evicted from the site.

In reality, people who were present and cooperative got to label and store their belongings. Those who were not lost tents, sleeping bags and other life-saving items to Department of Public Works trash trucks.

“I walk by these people every day, they’ve become a part of the community,” said an onlooker who passed the Union Station camp daily on his commute. “They weren’t bothering anybody.”

Pedestrian and car traffic alike were stymied while garbage trucks and other vehicles blocked the roadways. The extensive media coverage that this camp closure received from the likes of CNN, FOX News and The Washington Post served as a stark contrast to other encampment cleanups in the past month, which generally received little to no attention. Advocates estimate there have been 30 shutdowns since October 2015.

Photo of a table, chairs, sheets, and clothing behind a fence.

Four under-bridge locations along Maine Ave. SW near its intersection with 14th Street were fenced off between February 25 and February 28, 2016. Belongings and remnants of the former homeless encampment remain.  Photo by Eric Falquero

The edge of the northbound 3rd Street tunnel had been home to a number of men and women. Also evicted between February 25 and 28, their belongings remain behind the fence. No dates are visible on the cleanup notice. | Photo by Eric Falquero

The edge of the northbound 3rd Street tunnel had been home to a number of men and women. Also evicted between February 25 and 28, their belongings remain behind the fence. No dates are visible on the cleanup notice.  Photo by Eric Falquero

Conflicting cleanup notices at a three-tent camp along I-395 at the corner of 4th and M St NW. One on the fence behind the camp says cleanup may begin as of 2/25/2016. Another driven into the ground on the other side of the fence says 3/8/2016. Residents moved, one way or another, between March 1 and March 3. | Photos by Michael Brice-Saddler and Eric Falquero

Conflicting cleanup notices at a three-tent camp along I-395 at the corner of 4th and M St NW. One on the fence behind the camp says cleanup may begin as of 2/25/2016. Another driven into the ground on the other side of the fence says 3/8/2016. Residents moved, one way or another, between March 1 and March 3.  Photos by Michael Brice-Saddler and Eric Falquero

The number of residents and tents at the Union Station camp has fluctuated over the past few months, with as many as 19 counted in February. At the time of Thursday’s cleanup, there were approximately 14 tents and 12 residents, according to Michael Czin, Communications Director for Mayor Bowser’s office.

One of those residents was Charlie, who has been homeless in the District for 27 years and has lived under the H Street overpass for 2 years. Charlie has seen four cleanups of this camp in the past year, but this is the first one where people have been forced to move. He commends the Department of Human Services for giving him an apartment, which he credits to Pathways to Housing outreach worker Caitlin DiMaina. “She is the best [case manager] I’ve ever had,” Charlie said, noting that he had been trying to get housing for over a decade. DiMaina had managed it in roughly three weeks. “She’s amazing.”

Charlie is most looking forward to taking a shower and having a place to call his own. He has to wait on cleaning and inspection of his new unit before getting there, and hopes he’ll be able to move into his apartment next week. In the meantime, Charlie plans to return to the Union Station site after the cleanup, “Oh, I’m not going anywhere until I have my apartment,” he said. When asked whether or not there would be follow-up efforts to keep campers out of the area, Czin changed the subject. The largest expense for encampment cleanups to-date has been the fencing put up after some of them. 

Other camp residents were less positive about the circumstances than Charlie.

Eric Falquero

“I’m a U.S. citizen!”,  exclaimed Henry as his tent and other belongings were dragged away by employees from the Department of Public Works. “You have no right to do this to us!”

Six of the 12 residents living at the Union Station camp were interested in outreach efforts provided by the city, and have accepted some form of housing, according to Czin. Beyond moving tents, DMHHS’ goal was to also tidy up the area and remove any trash.

While there was moderate resistance by some of the campers during the cleanup, others were more resigned to what was transpiring. “I just take life as it comes,” said Rick, another camper under the H Street bridge. “I’m going to try a transition home this time, because I’ve never tried it before.”

All belongings that were not disposed of will be taken to the Adam’s Place Day Center and held for 30 days, where they can be retrieved by their owners.

Donald’s office is also keeping track of who lived in the camp to determine which services they may be eligible for, according to DMHHS Chief of Staff Rachel Joseph. The day center is located in Ward 5 next to a low-barrier shelter. It provides laundry and shower facilities in addition to help with housing and job search.

Sleeping in a tent—or any other “temporary abode”—is illegal in the city. Despite this law from the 80s, Parks was more concerned with keeping people safe until they can get housing when he gave out the tents in December. Now he worries about the further distrust of government and outreach workers that could have been created by the city’s camp closure. “That being said, I think we’re all fighting for the same team. Let [The Department of Human Services] and Pathways do their jobs. My goal is just much more immediate.”

As encampment cleanups continue, outreach workers and advocates like Parks will keep fighting for residents’ rights. “I’m going to help them in any way that I can,” he said in an email. “If they need a tent and I can afford it, then I will get them a tent, no questions asked.”

Chris Parks said motivated him the most to help camp residents was their inspiring positivity: smiles, kind greetings. Photo taken in December 2015. | Photo courtesy of Chris Parks

Chris Parks said what motivated him the most to help camp residents was their inspiring positivity: smiles, kind greetings, etc. Photo taken in December 2015.  Courtesy of Chris Parks