The District government evicted a handful of homeless people and removed their tents and possessions from First Street NE near Union Station yesterday.

The “cleanup” began just after 10 a.m. Thursday. Signs posted on Feb. 11 warned the residents that the eviction would take place on or after Feb. 25.

For the first time, the District is conducting cleanups during hypothermia season—when temperatures may dip below freezing—a change defended by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services. “The District is obligated to act responsibly and responsively to address encampment issues—balancing the rights of individuals experiencing homelessness and other constituents,” the deputy mayor’s office stated in an oversight document to the D.C. Council. “It is not safe for people to be outside when it gets dangerously cold, and we have a responsibility to bring them indoors.”

In response to a recommendation from the Department of Human Services, the deputy mayor’s office released a memo ahead of Thursday’s cleanup saying that “life-sustaining items (including tents)” belonging to people who “continue to refuse engagement or services” would be stored.

But that did not extend to people who were not at the camp at the time of the cleanup. Employees of the Department of Public Works were observed throwing whole tents and sleeping bags into the back of a garbage truck, items that apparently belonged to people who were not at the site Thursday.

Outreach workers from DHS, the Department of Behavioral Health, as well as from nonprofits that have contracts with the District, helped people at their tents bag and label their items. These bags were then taken by DHS to a day center it operates at Adams Place to be stored for 30 days. There were also United Planning Organization vans on site to take people to Adams Place to be assessed for housing.

According to a DHS spokesperson, six people at the camp agreed to enter low-barrier shelter while they wait for housing placements. About 12 people were living at the site.

Ann Marie Staudenmaier, a staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, observed part of the eviction and saw life-saving items being thrown away.

“If someone is not there, no protections are in place” to save their belongings, she said.

Between October 2015 and January 2016, the District conducted encampment cleanups at 13 sites at a cost of more than $172,000. Between January 2015 and January 2016, D.C. only stored belongings from two encampment sites.

Photos by Sarah Anne Hughes