Tossed in the trash: Residents at Union Station stripped of their belongings
Vicki Paige was determined not to move. As she settled into a wrought-iron garden chair in Columbus Circle across from Union Station, she watched with skepticism as her neighbors packed for the day’s encampment removal.
“The police will be the ones who will have to remove me,” Paige said, pausing a playlist of her favorite songs and placing her headphones in her lap. “If I’m leaving my home, I need to know where I can go. And they’re not explaining that to me.”
On June 1, the National Park Service (NPS) led a long-planned encampment clearing of the area, citing health and safety concerns. Union Station is also set to be renovated in the coming years. Unlike recent closures undertaken as part of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Coordinated Assistance and Resources for Encampments (CARE) pilot, this closure was not paired with any official effort to match residents with housing vouchers.
This clearing came amid an ongoing debate over what the city should do with a growing number of encampments. People experiencing homelessness often turn to encampments as a last resort while they search for permanent housing, particularly if they are wary of the conditions and rules in emergency shelters.
When an encampment is cleared, its residents generally scatter throughout the city. This makes it hard for caseworkers to stay in touch with former residents, undermining the goal of connecting people experiencing homelessness with housing, according to Christy Respress, the executive director of D.C.-based social services organization Pathways to Housing.
The CARE pilot — which so far has removed four encampments — attempted to address this problem by evicting unhoused residents from encampment sites while offering to help them obtain housing vouchers. The program began in 2021 as part of Bowser’s still-unfulfilled pledge to end chronic homelessness in D.C., with 4,410 people still experiencing homelessness as of this year’s point-in-time count. Administered by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services (DMHHS), the pilot program has drawn criticism for uneven implementation that left 40 people unhoused across four sites, as well as for inflicting unnecessary trauma on residents during encampment closures by forcing them to move without first securing housing. Supporters of the CARE pilot contend the existing conditions are not safe for the unhoused residents or the community at large.
The area around Union Station has been a longtime target for encampment clearings and closures, which the city has ramped up in the last few years. The city began trying to shut down certain encampments in 2019 and 2020, partially to enhance “pedestrian walkways,” a reasoning heavily critiqued by outreach workers. NoMa underpass encampments were closed altogether in 2021 as part of the CARE pilot. Many of the residents at the Union Station encampment said they previously lived at the site of the NoMa underpasses.
The June 1 clearing displaced around 35 people. In some cases, NPS workers trashed residents’ belongings instead of storing them, despite prior commitments. U.S. Park Police tased one resident who was experiencing a mental health crisis and involuntarily committed her to a mental health facility, officials confirmed. According to Aaron Howe, the co-founder of Remora House, it’s common for NPS-led cleanups to be more traumatic for residents than ones conducted by the city, though the clearing at Union Station was more considerate than some in the past.
“They’re always harder,” Howe said.
35 lives disrupted
Formed at the start of the pandemic, the encampment at Columbus Circle grew to about 35 tents, some of which were gone before last week’s clearing. NPS, which has control of the property, chose not to enforce the no-camping zone during the last two years. Since the onset of the pandemic, many people experiencing homelessness have opted to live in encampments, hoping to avoid exposing themselves to COVID-19 in crowded shelters. This is in line with guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which confirmed the virus could be more easily spread in congregate shelter settings.
In a March 24 letter announcing its plans to remove the encampment, NPS asked the District to provide housing assistance for encampment residents. But the clearing was not linked to any permanent housing program. Pathways and Project H3, another local nonprofit, spent weeks attempting to connect unhoused residents in the area with permanent housing vouchers, a process that usually stretches over many months and that is constrained by the availability of vouchers.
Some residents were eligible for PEP-V, a housing program created during the pandemic for individuals who are medically vulnerable. Others who were matched with a Permanent Supportive Housing voucher but are still looking for an apartment moved into what’s known as “bridge housing.”
But most people were forced to relocate without assistance, Respress said.
That was true for Kenan Bell, an Illinois native who missed his train at Union Station three weeks ago. “And next thing you know, I’m out here,” he said. Instead of watching his child graduate in Miami, he spent the day going back-and-forth between Union Station and his next place as he moved his things.
Like Bell, other residents of the encampment who were not able to get housing had to find a new place to stay. Smalls Chin said she was one of several people headed to a nearby park on city property. While most encampment residents felt they should be allowed to stay in Columbus Circle, Chin said she understood the Park Service’s position, at least to some extent. In the month and a half she’d been there, she’d seen enough rats to believe the area needed cleaning.
“They’re not doing this to make it hard,” she said.
But the day was hard anyway. Bell was losing the first living arrangement he’d found in D.C., and Chin lost some members of her informal family. And many of the people living there in Columbus Circle lost everything they had to leave behind.
Even the night before the clearing, resistance to movement was in clear view. Below the NPS placards announcing the planned encampment closure, handmade cardboard signs read “we not leaving bruh” and “we have the right 2 land bread n water.”
The next day, that resistance grew.
A Virginia native, Paige had been at the Union Station encampment since September 2021. After 10 months, she came to see the paved corner she’d claimed with two tents and two planters as hers. When NPS officials arrived, she told them she’d only move if ordered to do so by the Park Police. But the choice was never really hers; after the police promised to arrest her if she stayed put, she began packing up. Even so, Paige said, she was only moving because she had help from Project H3: “Otherwise, they would just have to arrest me.”
Before the clearing began, outreach workers worried that several residents would refuse to move, especially those who were at a greater risk for mental health crises. To successfully engage with encampment residents who experience less stability requires maximum time and effort, according to Ami Angell, the founder and director of outreach for the H3 Project.
“Several of the individuals who want to remain in place today are the people who would most benefit from extra assistance, and I’m really just not seeing much support here for them,” she said.
M, who is being referred to using a pseudonym since she may not have been in a mental state to give consent to her name being used, was the last person left at the encampment. She’d been talking to outreach workers for about an hour and was almost willing to move when Park Police approached her, according to Howe, who witnessed the incident. Police officers told her they would remove her if she did not leave her tent, Howe said. M became agitated and sprayed a caseworker with a cleaning product before holding scissors above her head and lunging at officers, according to NPS Chief of Communications Mike Litterst. The police responded by tasing and then cuffing her. Though Park Police did not file charges, M was involuntarily committed and NPS workers threw away most of her belongings, including her tent, Litterst said. When she gets out, she will learn she’s lost everything.
The police reaction was widely decried by outreach workers and housing advocates.
“We know that that is the absolute worst outcome,” Respress said. “The only worse outcome would be if someone was shot.”
Watching a community leave
By 8 a.m., Robert Wade was already tired. He’d been living at the encampment since Feb. 10 and wasn’t planning to go far, hoping he could still take advantage of the water and soap inside the train station.
“I’m just preparing to comply and lay down after,” he said.
He’d already gotten rid of several pounds of belongings and was carefully packing 20 more items into various bags. He said the clearing was causing him to lose about half of his possessions.
When NPS arrived at 7 a.m., outreach workers from Pathways, Project H3, DMHHS and the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health were talking to a few residents who did not know where they would go. Over a dozen NPS employees, who Litterst confirmed were facility management workers, donned protective full-body suits.
I’m at Union Station with @annemariecuccia where encampment residents are preparing for an engagement by the National Park Service. Follow this thread for live updates. #homelessness @streetsensedc pic.twitter.com/nMi2Oa54nq
— Athiyah Azeem (@AthiyahTA) June 1, 2022
The clearing was scheduled for just 90 minutes, but took at least four hours. As the morning progressed and the temperature approached 100, there were eight Park Police officers in the park. NPS employees first emptied the trash cans in Columbus Circle and then began tossing whole tents into the garbage trucks, picking them up with rakes.
The fate of belongings left behind by residents was unclear. When the city clears encampments, its protocol requires that all clean items left behind be stored for 60 days. Respress said NPS had initially promised to do the same, but advocates watching that day said the promise was not upheld.
At one point, Angell grabbed a clean, packed suitcase out of the hands of an NPS worker as they were tossing it into the garbage truck. Angell said outreach workers saved several items in good condition from being thrown away, and Howe said NPS workers trashed tents that outreach workers thought would be stored. While Park Police told Angell storage was still an option, there seemed to be a disconnect with the NPS workers, she said. In a later statement, the NPS confirmed items collected would be held for 60 days but did not respond to criticism that items were trashed instead of stored.
Losing a tent with belongings inside doesn’t mean losing just housing for encampment residents, but also clothes, personal mementos and important documents needed to obtain permanent housing. In addition to delaying the housing process, this can make it harder to survive in the meantime, harder to look presentable for a job interview, and harder to stay warm in the winter or out of the sun in the summer.
“This is everything the individuals we work with have — like it is their livelihood in these tents,” Angell said.
Community broken apart
Sixteen hours before police removed her from the encampment, M sat in front of her tent, sipping the last of an ice water with sugar from Starbucks. She normally gets an iced English breakfast tea with lots of sugar and cream, she said, but she didn’t have any money that day.
M had been at Union Station for about a month, and in the NoMa underpasses for three years before that.
She doesn’t remember a lot of her childhood, where she’s from, or where she got the scars on her body. She doesn’t like that it snows in D.C., but the above-80 weather doesn’t faze her.
“It’’s a good thing I can bring sun,” she said.
That day’s sun made her speculate on what the encampment could be: Everyone throws their trash away, she said, and with a few more cans they wouldn’t overflow. More shade would keep people cool. The residents could even have events on the plaza outside their tents. It could really be a community.
“So why do they want people out so bad?” M asked.
Will Schick and Athiyah Azeem contributed reporting.
This article was co-published with The DC Line.
Annemarie Cuccia covers DC government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and The DC Line. This joint position was made possible by The Nash Foundation and individual contributors.