Five years ago one of the nation’s oldest service providers for people experiencing homelessness moved from gentrifying Columbia Heights to the renovated Gales School building near Union Station. It was a deliberate move by Central Union Mission to locate closer to people that need the nonprofit’s assistance.
Even before the mission moved there, unhoused individuals have sought refuge on the two grass triangles at 65 Massachusetts Avenue NW.
On March 8 of this year, federal park police officers informed Adam Pierce and 9-12 other people camping on one of the grass triangles that they had to leave. “They showed up about 6 or 6:30,” Pierce told Street Sense Media. “They were kicking the tents and pulling out the strings to knock it down.”
[Read more: Union Station homeless community evicted]
Pierce took up residence in the park about a year ago, when an established community was already there, centered around a large tent canopy that had been wrapped with tarps for extra warmth and privacy. “It was kind of nasty,” Pierce said, “because there were all kinds of spiders and bugs and things in there, and garbage.” Eventually, Pierce helped the others take down the large canopy.
The way Pierce tells it, over time he became a de facto property manager. Someone donated a tent to him when they saw him sleeping outside. He, in turn, offered to share the tent with another homeless man. Pierce salvaged a few more broken or abandoned tents and offered those to others in need.
“I wasn’t collecting rent,” he joked. “I was just concerned with people having somewhere to be, as opposed to sitting out there on the street or making a mess everywhere.”
He didn’t want to stay or get too comfortable, but Pierce felt responsible for maintaining the area and keeping it as clean as he could while he was there. He noted that the adjacent grass triangle was part of the fire evacuation plan for the U.S. Government Publishing Office next door, and had to be kept clear. Both pieces of land are considered national parks and thus are under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Park Police.
“I’ve tried to apply at different canvassing jobs, different restaurants, things like that,” Pierce said. ”I was trying not to get [social security], trying not to get food stamps, trying not to be a leech on the system. But after nine months of refusal after refusal, just because I don’t [currently] have a job and because everything’s online…I’m getting stretched pretty thin here.” He described being explicitly told during job interviews that a company does not hire homeless people and often being asked where he lives.
The camp started to change when Pierce left town for a 21-day bipolar medication study in Maryland. He said more people moved in while he was gone and no one was really keeping the area clean.
Soon after he returned, a U.S. Park Police officer told him the tents needed to come down. “I said, ‘Well, okay, but we don’t have anywhere else to put our tents.’ And they said, ‘You just have to take them down during the day, but you can but it back up at night,’” Pierce recalled.
So that became the new regimen, until March 8, when campers were told that complaints had been made, the tents had to come down and garbage crews would come by later in the day to collect all the trash. According to Pierce, one man who came out of a tent and began walking away from the site was cuffed and taken away in a van. Pierce said the man exited a tent to relieve himself and had said, “That’s not my tent,” when officers ordered that he take the tent down.
“Which is true, it wasn’t his tent,” said Pierce, who claimed ownership.
The National Park Service did not initially respond to a request for comment.
Though the garbage clean-up was welcome, Pierce was worried because a dentist had offered him pro bono work for the same day the clean-up was scheduled. “I had to go get my teeth fixed, because I’ve been waiting for that for a long time,” Pierce said. “Tooth pain is one of the worst kind of pains you can have.”
[Read more: Millions of low-income adults do their best to do their daily work and overcome poverty in spite of immense dental pain]
He asked the representative from the mayor’s office if he could place his possessions somewhere to separate them from the garbage that would be picked up while he was gone.
“And she said, ‘Oh, just make sure that there’s somebody out here.’” Pierce recalled. He said he emphasized the importance of vouching for his belongings to other campers and left for the dental work when his ride arrived.
When he returned, everything was gone. After questioning the remaining campers, Pierce came to the conclusion that there was a 25-minute window when no one was watching over his things.
Right now, the District government is facing a class-action lawsuit that alleges homeless individuals’ Fourth Amendment rights are often violated during encampment clean-ups because belongings that are not claimed by someone who is present are often discarded. The Fourth Amendment protects people and their effects against unreasonable searches and seizures. The lawsuit was filed 20 days after the March 8 incident and was not a direct response to it: legal observers have been visiting encampment sweeps in the city since at least the summer of 2016.
Pierce told Street Sense Media, “One of the officers, that day or the next, gave me a phone number to call. He actually described one of my bags. So supposedly one of my bags is in a storage somewhere. My biggest annoyance is I had a hard drive in there that had some documents, things that I need for if I want to get a better job or just for myself.”
Signage posted at 65 Massachusetts Ave. NW indicates that a standard city cleanup occurred on March 20. No tents or other indications of camping are currently visible at the site.
“It’s just been one thing after another,” Pierce said, and then departed for a job interview at a restaurant on U Street.