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Evicted, Homeless Have Few Places to Go

By Potomac Local News March 30, 2011 11:03 pm

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Story by Uriah Kiser
Photos by Mary Davidson

Roger, who lives in a homeless camp outside the C.D. Hylton Memorial Chapel, says he will move to a new wooded area near the Horner Road commuter lot in Woodbridge after his is forced out Thursday.

It was a race against time at the homeless camps in Dale City on Wednesday.

People, some of which who have lived in tents on a highway cloverleaf at Interstate 95 and Dale Boulevard for more than 10 years, were packing their things and asking anyone with a truck to come and help them move.

Virginia State Police at 10 a.m. Thursday are expected to enter thickets and force the homeless campers from the land, which, technically, they have been trespassing on as it is owned by the state.

At noon, after the campers are gone, the Virginia Department of Transportation will come along and trash whatever the campers can’t take with them.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day, and we are going to need more time to get our stuff out of here,” said Lafayette, 43, who lives in one of the camps. “Each of these tents here has a queen size mattress in it. How are we supposed to carry that stuff ourselves as we walk down the road?”

Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said state troopers began going to the camps March 23 notifying the homeless of the deadline to vacate.

Of the more than 30 tents in the area, more than 80 people will be displaced.

The campers said police officers were very kind and accommodating when they came to deliver them the news.

Not welcome on state property
Last week, and again on Wednesday, crews with the Virginia Department of Transportation were putting up signs notifying campers they are trespassing on state property.

Until now, those who live in the camps have enjoyed a relatively peaceful relationship with police, and often use Prince William County’s warming shelter outside the OmniRide bus terminal on Telegraph Road to shower and get a hot meal.

The campers make their homes in the woods as cozy as possible.

Neabsco District Supervisor John Jenkins did not return a call Wednesday to comment on this story, and state delegates Richard Anderson and Luke Torian said they didn’t know the campers were being forced to move.

A ‘safety’ thing
VDOT says the homeless are being forced from the land for safety’s sake.

“This is a difficult situation and while we are sympathetic to anyone who is homeless, but VDOT cannot allow these shelters on its right of way,” said VDOT spokeswoman Jennifer McCord. “The main issue is safety—of both the campers there and the traveling public. VDOT’s right of way is in high-speed, high-traffic locations. The campers are walking across the roadway (interstate entrance and exit ramps) to access their tents at night, making it an extremely dangerous situation for themselves and motorists.”

Campers say they do cross busy Dale Boulevard to get to the winter shelter, which as luck would have it, closes Thursday and will only reopen as a cooling center when hot summer temperatures become a problem.

At home in the woods
At the homeless camps are generators used to power lights, stereos and TV sets. Picnic tables are set up next to gas stoves where meals are cooked with propane stoves.

Rainwater is collected in buckets so clothes can be washed and the hung on a line strung between two trees to dry.

Inside one of the few remaining tents at an abandoned camp near I-95, the bed is made awaiting the return of its owner.

Roger, who has lived at a camp outside the C.D. Hylton Memorial Chapel for about a year and a half, stood by a free-standing metal fireplace to keep warm as sleet fell Wednesday afternoon.

His encampment, also on state property, sits on the chapel’s property line. He says the chapel will not allow campers on their property, but workers there  do help them with trash collection.

“I don’t know where we are going to go. We’ve been out here all winter freezing our butts off, and now this. I guess we’ll make due, because we’re homeless but not helpless,” he said.

Roger, who had yet to breakdown any portion of his camp, said he would move to another wooded area near the Horner Road commuter lot.

Michael Anthony was still sleeping inside his tent about 1:30 p.m. at a camp across from the bus terminal next to the highway. He is the only one left at the camp, as others apparently heeded the warning to vacate the land prior to the arrival of police.

They left behind a mess of trash and the remnants of old tents.

Known as “Bernie Mac” to others at nearby camps because of his resemblance to the late star, he spent 12 years in the Marine Corps but now lives in the woods and makes regular visits to his parole officer. “You know, I haven’t even given moving much thought. It’s something that I don’t even want to think about,” said Anthony.

Nowhere to go
There are few options for these campers, and other wooded spots in the area not on public land are either already taken by other homeless campers. There are also fears amongst campers that after word gets out state police kicked them off public land, private land owners could also force them to leave.

Clotheslines are a common sight at the camps.

A handful of campers currently live on private land behind a K-Mart store along Dale Boulevard. It’s on private land, and Geller says the state has not been asked by the landowner to make the homeless leave.

Campers say they can turn to area churches for help, including Saint Paul United Methodist Church in Woodbridge where dinner is served every Thursday, and free propane tanks are distributed twice a month, campers say.

“The churches around here are stretched pretty thin, and there’s not a lot more they can do than what they are already doing,” said Danny Sanders, who works at the Volunteers of America Chesapeake Hilda Barg Homeless Prevention Center on U.S. 1.

That shelter is already full and cannot take any of the campers, says the center’s director, Gayle Sanders.

Sanders said she is working with a local church to place one woman who lived in the woods, but it’s not an easy process.

Many others who live in the woods choose to so they don’t have to abide by shelter rules, which include no alcohol consumption.

The wildfire effect
On a very windy day in February, fire broke out in the homeless camps behind K-Mart in Dale City. The wind exacerbated the wildfires, prompting the busiest day for firefighters in Prince William County in more than 30 years.

A 25-year-old homeless man was charged with carelessly spreading fire that day and was given a court summons.

The space where the homeless camps are will become increasing crowded in coming years.

A plan to build the National Museum Americans in Wartime behind the K-Mart store was approved last fall. Now it’s up to the museum’s foundation to raise money for the complex that will feature recreated battle landscapes, and working tanks and airplanes. If all goes to plan, the new museum could open Veteran’s Day 2014.