James sits at the front of the photo facing the camera.
James Carter (right) sitting by his tent at Burke Park at 12th St. and Massachusetts Ave. NW on July 5. He has worked as a construction worker for nearly three years, and is still experiencing homelessness. Photo by Athiyah Azeem

A day after the Fourth of July, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner 2F08 Alexandra Bailey and multiple mutual aid groups helped a tent community at Burke and Samuel Gompers Memorial Park pack up their items, in preparation for the U.S. Park Police potentially clearing the area.

This comes after a June 20 letter of complaint to Park Police from “concerned, taxpaying citizens … along the Mass Ave NW corridor in the Logan Circle/Shaw/Mt. Vernon neighborhood.” That letter called members of the tent community “vagrants” and accused them of violating several Codes of Federal Regulation. It asks Park Police to “immediately remove” the encampments, which would go against the Center of Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 guidelines. 

The CDC guidelines, called “Interim Guidance on People Experiencing Unsheltered Homelessness,” advise governments to let encampments remain where they are, stating any disruption can disconnect unhoused individuals from their service providers and increase the risk of spreading infectious disease. 

According to Bailey, who represents Burke Park in ANC 2F, and homeless advocacy organization Remora House D.C., National Park Service chief of staff Brian Joyner stated the department has “plans to move on the camp shortly after July 4th.”

“Park Police don’t care about breaking the law. They make the law,” said Robert Buchanan, who is considered the ‘governor’ of the community. He has been homeless since 2013 and has been at the encampment at Burke Park for five to six months. He compared the Park Police’s response to when the agency arrested eight people and cleared McPherson Square of Occupy D.C. protestors in riot gear and on horseback in 2012.

Bailey, with ANC commissioners Michelle Yan for 2F03 and Yannik Omictin for 2A01, alongside volunteers from Remora House D.C., Ward 2 Mutual Aid, Sunrise Movement D.C., and Palm Collective have been taking shifts helping Buchanan and other tent community members for the past two days. They continue to sweep and clean the area of any trash, and help members pack essential items like clothes and important documents in bags in anticipation of leaving immediately when Park Police presence is spotted.

“These are people’s homes. Everything they have is in these tents,” Bailey said as she directs volunteers to help people pack up on July 5. That day, she believed there was a high probability of Park Police clearing the area on July 6. “If [Park Police] just pick [the belongings] up and put them in the dumpster, they have nothing!”

Bailey herself has been helping this community for several months, asking the D.C. government to provide a public bathroom, and using her own money to pay for unhoused residents to get their birth certificates, a document required to get a housing voucher. She says Park Police have attempted to clear Burke and Samuel Gompers Memorial Parks in the past, and she has convinced them to give her extensions for a few months to get the community housed.

Bailey and the residents stand in the middle of the park surrounded by temporary housing and supplies

Commissioner Alexandra Bailey of ANC2F08 speaks to residents at 12th St. and Mass. Ave. NW on July 6 to relay the U.S. Park Police’s position that “this park can be cleared at anytime.” Photo by Athiyah Azeem

A few months, however, is still a very short time period to help people experiencing homelessness access housing in D.C. Several members of the tent community said they have been waiting for housing vouchers for several years. Buchanan was selected to receive a voucher in 2019, but only found that out seven months ago. He said his case manager asks him to periodically sign income statements and other paperwork but he still has not received the subsidy. 

James Carter has been waiting for his voucher for several months now, and was told he would get it in June, then in July, and now in August.

“It’s put me in a tight situation, now that [Park Police] wants us to leave in July,” Carter said. He has been working in construction for two years and eight months, and is still experiencing homelessness. 

Park Police responded to Street Sense Media on the evening of July 5 to say they had “nothing planned” for the parks for July 6. Bailey spoke with the department on the morning of July 6, and asked for a two-month extension to get people housed. 

She said the department would weigh the pros and cons of the extension but would “not commit to not clearing this encampment.” During the call, Park Police told her they have the right to clear the tent communities despite CDC guidelines and that there was a plan of action to move the encampments out of the parks at an unspecified time, according to Bailey. 

“I’m devastated,” she said. “It’s just a complete and utter disrespect to human life.”

Bailey and other advocates are now considering preemptively moving the camp elsewhere, or organizing protests. 

Woodson stands in front of his tent; numerous other tends are behind his

Marco Woodson stands by his tent at Burke Park on July 5. He says he is taking a stand, and has no intention of moving. Photo by Athiyah Azeem

Marco Woodson, a community member who decided not to move, said he’s willing to risk arrest to stay at the park after living in what he described as unsanitary conditions in 801 East Men’s Shelter.

“I’m not going anywhere, Woodson said. “If you don’t stand for anything, you gonna fall for anything.”

The day after this article was published, the National Park Service responded to Street Sense’s media inquiry, confirming there are no imminent plans to remove the encampments. They said that while camping in federal parks in D.C. is illegal, NPS has followed CDC guidelines by allowing the tent community to remain during the pandemic.

“Now that the vaccine is widely available and there are spaces available in city housing and shelters, the NPS is beginning the process to address public health and safety concerns, as well as damage to park resources, in several parks across the city,” NPS wrote, adding they would give notice to the community before taking any action. “We’ll take a social services first approach and will continue to work closely with the D.C. Department of Health and Human Services (sic) and community partners to connect people living in encampments with resources and housing.”

As Street Sense Media reported in June, D.C.’s Office of the Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services coordinated 65% as many full cleanups and immediate dispositions over the past three months as it carried out during the first year of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The city’s low-barrier shelter system has been hovering near capacity. During one day of last week’s heat emergency, there were only 15 beds remaining for men throughout D.C.


UPDATE (07.09.2021)

This article has been updated to include the National Park Service’s statement and background information about the District’s shelter capacity and encampment cleanups.