Homeless forced to leave Dale City tent camps along I-95

March 31, 2011

Maybe he’ll get on a bus tomorrow, Greg Sawyer said, just ride wherever it goes as long as he can to stay warm. Maybe he’ll end up somewhere he could pitch a tent.

He has lived in the woods here in Dale City for more than a decade now. Thursday morning, he and dozens of other people who’ve been camped out in a few small, entrenched communities near Interstate 95 got kicked off the land, which is owned by the Virginia Department of Transportation.

“I got nowhere to go,” Sawyer said as he began to limp along the highway to pack up his things, stopping to rub his bad knee every now and then. All morning, people hurried to and from tents, lugging sacks of blankets, dragging broken suitcases full of old clothes, cradling propane canisters in the crooks of their arms. Many said the same thing: They didn’t know where they would go.

“It’s a very sad situation,” said Joan Morris, a spokeswoman for VDOT. “It’s not something we sought to do.”

Virginia State Police lined up around the curves of the ramps at 10:45 a.m. and went in telling people that they had to leave today.

Morris said her agency received complaints from the office of State Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William). People were walking back to their tents in the dark and crossing the ramps where cars speed around the blind curves, a hazard both to the walkers and to the drivers. A spokesman for the delegate said safety was the concern.

Morris said they tried to clear the area and make it safe in a sensitive way, giving people with lots of heavy items overnight to finish moving.

At least 80 people are believed to live in tents scattered through the area, near a Prince William County winter shelter, a bus terminal, a Kmart and some fast-food places. In the woods nearby, small neighborhoods have sprung up with camps. Some have wooden lean-tos, generators, TVs, heavy dinner tables.

“It’s good people,” said Kerwin Washington, who lost his job as a machine mechanic this winter. “People help each other out,” lending a blanket or a tarp, especially within the same cloverleaf. Strangers aren’t trusted, and there is crime. But longtime residents such as Sawyer have good friends there. “People visit,” he said.

On March 21, Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said workers began notifying people that they had to leave the land by the end of the month. They nailed “No trespassing” signs to trees. Troopers drove around the access ramps, blaring messages to people in the cloverleafs.

On Thursday, people were compliant, Geller said. About 20 trespassing warnings were issued, and by 5 p.m. everyone had left.

Some of those who were leaving were angry, talking about how many veterans live there and calling it betrayal, asking why they were given only two days’ notice, or talking about how there were plans to build new roads, a museum, stores — things for rich people. Many just seemed weary.

“Where I’m going to go, I’m not sure,” Washington said, hood up to protect against the cold rain and pulling a thick sleeping-bag roll and a garbage bag full of clothes. “Trying to find me a spot where I can pitch up a tent.” One thing he does know: “There’s a lot of places we can’t go. State land, private land.”

There are people living outside in patches that aren’t VDOT property, Geller pointed out. There’s a large group behind a church, small clusters here and there.

By early afternoon, workers were going in and picking up things left behind. They found about 55 tents as well as sofas, beds, heaters, a pool table and lots of trash.

Sawyer, 54, said he has been here since he lost his job working for a contractor and things went downhill from there. He lives in a hollow not far from the Kmart, one of a dozen people who stay there, with folding chairs outside tents, oilcans for fires, horseshoes to toss.

For years, he has lived near Rhonda Boomer, who has plush recliners, a clothesline, a ladder, an enormous tent, mattresses wrapped in plastic and thick comforters. “This is how we live,” she said. A tear rolled down from under her glasses. “Where are we going to go — where? What the hell are we supposed to do?”

Sawyer didn’t say anything. He shuffled along, a tall, bearded man bundled up in a gray parka, a coat, a hooded sweat shirt and a knit hat, eyes down, going to pack up his things.

He got pneumonia here once and had to go to the hospital. He has seen people die here, frozen to death. “I can’t take it,” he said. “I have a weak heart. I just go blank.”

He didn’t have much to pack: a blue tent, a 12-pack of Schlitz beer, a big knife, ragged blankets, some black alligator-patterned dress shoes, a pair of white sneakers and a few other things to throw in a plastic bag. But he was hurrying. The police cars were lined up along the edge of the woods. He had a bus to catch.

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