DC Homelessness: NPS Clears Union Station Camp

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On Wednesday morning, the garbage truck pulled up to the edge of the nearest tent and half a dozen National Park Service employees got to work.

Wearing protective suits and masks, they began to put everything in the truck – blankets and garbage, tarps and tent poles – as people watched the removal of a homeless encampment that had developed in the past two years at Columbus Circle in DC

“Hold on! Hold on!” shouted Ami Angell, executive director of the nonprofit H3 Project and one of the few homeless outreach advocates on site. “We were told that NPS would retain unmonitored objects for 60 days? »

The workers shrugged and continued to tear down the tent, as Angell grabbed an abandoned suitcase and went in search of a supervisor. But as the morning wore on, the quick clean-up of the encampment captured the district’s homelessness problem in a microcosm: here, outside Union Station’s columned entrance gate 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 around because all they’re doing is throwing it away, honestly,” said Toni Irons, 53, who had been living at the Columbus Circle camp for a month. and half. “But I don’t think they should move us when we have nowhere to go.”

Wednesday’s pullout of the Columbus Circle encampment signaled to many Washington defenders and homeless people that the clearances were back on, after a long hiatus. The district halts moves during the cold months, from November 1, and pandemic-related federal government guidelines had advised agencies such as the Park Service for the past two years to allow people to stay put, rather than forcing them to move to potentially less safe environments or crowded indoor shelters.

Outreach workers at Pathways to Housing, one of the DC area’s largest homeless service providers, had spent days persuading about 35 encampment residents to leave the site before the Wednesday morning deadline. . Because Columbus Circle is federal property, the Park Service oversees the maintenance and enforcement of no-camping rules.

For some of the people living in the encampment, Union Station was not their first stop. Several told social workers that they had stayed in other camps until they were cleared in the fall. Others said their previous campsites had become so crowded that they decided to leave, according to Christy Respress, executive director of Pathways.

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On Wednesday morning, Tommy Richard, 66, watched the move near the shopping cart that contained his belongings. “They’ve had signs for a while” warning of the June 1 camp withdrawal, 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 unsure where he would go next. “I guess I’ll find something,” he said.

Experts say those who end up sleeping rough are generally opposed to other housing options, including shelters, for a variety of reasons that advocates call “the four Ps”: pets, partners, property and, more recently , the pandemic.

“People are looking for security. They’re looking for well-lit areas, well-trafficked areas, access to resources,” Respress said. “At the time someone is living in a tent, if that’s the best option they can come up with, it means the other options aren’t working for them.”

Being forced to leave amid the chaos of a camp move – with garbage trucks waiting to pick up trash and workers in protective gear lined up to clean tents – can be traumatic for people who are already among most vulnerable in the city, Respress said.

A handful of camp residents had recently been approved for housing vouchers, officials said, and social workers were trying to find them temporary accommodation in apartments intended for bridging the gap between homelessness and more permanent places to live.

Others were deemed medically at risk, prompting outreach workers to offer to move them to hotel rooms, funded by DC’s pandemic emergency program for the medically vulnerable, instead of shelters. traditional collectives.

Those with few options, Respress said, were encouraged to leave on their own before the Wednesday morning deadline. Social workers offered to help these people transport or store their belongings, she said.

“Our staff are literally with every person who speaks through questions, like, have you found another place? Have you considered shelter? Would you like to reconsider accommodation? Do you need storage? Do you enough bags? Can you pack your own tent? Can we help you? Respress said in a call Tuesday. “We don’t want people to be pushed around. We don’t want them packing their things in a hurry. We don’t want them storing things if they don’t want it there.

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Respress said encampment clearances are inherently disruptive and make it harder for people to engage with systems that can help them get housing, health care, drug treatment and employment support, among others.

“Sometimes it’s really hard to find people when they’re constantly on the move,” Respress said. “It’s human shuffleboard, which is not healthy.”

Over the past two years, homelessness in the district has steadily declined, primarily due to a steep decline in family homelessness. But encampments, one of the most visible forms of homelessness, have grown.

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Wayne Turnage, DC’s deputy mayor for health and human services, said the number of encampments has increased by more than 40% between 2020 and 2021.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) emptied some of the city’s largest campsites 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 under the district’s rapid relocation program. . Since last month, the program had placed 99 people in apartments, according to DC officials.

In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Bowser declined to say whether she would expand or continue the program to reach 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 largest encampments in the district harmful. Despite this mounting pressure, the DC Council voted in December not to limit the mayor’s power to remove the camps.

As temperatures soared Wednesday morning, outreach workers helped camp residents pack their belongings as moving work continued. Project H3’s Angell eventually confirmed with a parks department supervisor that the items left behind would be retained for 60 days. But the lack of communication between the people who set policy and those who execute it is troublesome, she said.

“There are some good ideas at the top level, but it’s not happening at the lower levels,” Angell said. “We need more support, and we don’t see it today.”

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