Photo by Hajira Fuad

Todd, 56, has lived on the Columbus Circle encampment site in front of Union Station since December. 

Born and raised in New Jersey, Todd — who declined to give his last name — said he went to Job Corps in New York and graduated as a mason. “I was good with my hands,” he said. He then went on to work on construction sites across the East Coast. But as time passed, all that heavy lifting and mixing cement took a physical toll, and in 2001 Todd started having back problems. After one of the discs in his back collapsed, he had to get back surgery. Doctors put in rods and screws, but they didn’t replace the disc.

Since then, Todd has suffered from chronic back pain that has left him, he said, struggling with addiction, unable to work and, for the past few years, chronically homeless. But Todd said he wasn’t aware that the National Park Service (NPS) will soon be shutting down the Columbus Circle encampment site. Nor were seven other encampment residents that spoke to Street Sense Media.

“Somebody should get the word out,” Todd said.

Jeffrey Reinbold, the superintendent of the National Mall and Memorial Parks, said in a letter to the D.C. deputy mayor for Health and Human Services that NPS would be shutting down the Columbus Circle encampment as well as the one at 11th Street and I NW in early May, citing “numerous reports of drug activity, violence, and unsanitary conditions.”

The Columbus Circle encampment is home to more than 20 unsheltered residents, some of whom are between jobs and traveling between cities. Reinbold said in the letter that NPS would issue a 14-day written and verbal notice to residents of the encampments closing. 

Todd expressed hope that he would be placed into permanent supportive housing before then. He said that an outreach team from the D.C. Department of Human Services approached him in December and helped him secure a housing voucher. 

“I’m waiting on housing right now,” he said. “Something should be happening within the next couple of weeks. My paperwork is in. I already went out to three apartment buildings, and I chose the third one.”

Once he gets housed, Todd said he hopes to obtain a driver’s license and purchase a car so that he can visit his 31-year-old daughter, in New York, who just gave birth to a girl. 

“I just needed a little help, and this helped out pretty well, the voucher, as opposed to paying rent for $1,100,” he said. But it remains unclear whether Todd will be connected with housing before the May cleanup.

Reinbold said in the letter that “NPS will move to temporarily close these encampments by the beginning of May regardless of whether housing has been identified for unsheltered individuals.”

Jorge, 29, moved to the Columbus Circle encampment in mid-March, 2022, from Illinois. He would rather live outside than in a shelter because shelters are “too crowded.” Photo by Hajira Fuad.

Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a voucher pilot program in August 2021 to connect unsheltered people with resources and permanent housing in an effort designed to end homelessness in the District. The program applies to people experiencing homelessness in D.C. but does not include provisions for unsheltered people on federal property, like Columbus Circle. 

Because the Columbus Circle encampment is outside the District’s jurisdiction, the impending encampment cleanup will differ procedurally and operationally from D.C.-led cleanups. The official protocol that guides encampment cleanups in non-federal District land outlines an approach for assisting encampment residents by connecting them with social services, temporary shelter, and permanent housing placements.

NPS expressed a willingness to collaborate closely with the D.C. government in the coordination of the cleanup.

“Because the NPS is not a social service provider, we rely on the District and its partners for these services,” Reinbold said, referring to housing assistance and other resources.

“The NPS is committed to taking a social services-first approach and will continue to work closely with D.C. DHS and community partners to connect people living in encampments with resources and housing,” Public Affairs Specialist for the NPS Michael Litterst said in the agency’s official statement on the planned encampment removals.

Ami Angell, the director of the H3 Project, a nonprofit dedicated to ending homelessness, said the organization works with Columbus Circle encampment residents six days a week. The H3 Project immediately informed residents of the cleanup last week, shortly after Street Sense Media reporters visited the encampment. 

She said NPS plans on making Columbus Circle a “no tent zone” by May 1, less than a month out, and residents have yet to be connected with D.C. DHS resources. 

“Imagine someone shows up at your house and tells you that you have 14 days to pack up your entire life and find a new place to live,” she said. “With no support or direction. How would you feel? That’s what folks in Columbus Circle are feeling right now.”

Jesse Rabinowitz, senior manager for Policy and Advocacy at Miriam’s Kitchen, said it’s possible that government officials also want to hide the lived reality of homelessness in Columbus Circle from the public eye. The Columbus Circle encampment is right outside of Union Station, Amtrak’s second busiest station in the country, and less than a mile away from the U.S. Capitol.

“D.C. and the National Park Service don’t want people to see the reality of the homelessness crisis in our nation’s capital. And one way to do that is to evict people from a major transportation terminal,” Rabinowitz said.

“We have decisionmakers on the national level walking past this encampment on their commute, and the solution shouldn’t be, ‘Let’s move these people so we don’t see them,’” he said. “The solution to homelessness is housing without strings, without coercion, without police or bulldozers or artificial timelines.”

Rabinowitz had another concern, too. Reinbold’s letter to the deputy mayor requested D.C.’s support “in prioritizing housing assistance and other services for individuals encamped in these locations,” referring to the Columbus Circle and 11th and I Street NW encampments.

But while the housing needs of unsheltered residents in encampments like Columbus Circle are highly visible, Rabinowitz noted, there are many others in the city who are living in less visible unstable housing situations. 

“There are people in shelter who have been waiting for years and years to get housing,” Rabinowitz said.