Homeless campers face added challenges weathering wintertime

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 9, 2010

For Gala Crum, home is a $259 tent pitched in a frozen patch of woods near the Potomac Mills shopping mall in Prince William County.

Under a gray sky, the 21-year-old explained why she and her boyfriend have been sleeping outdoors in the bone-chilling cold, even after learning that she's pregnant. "I can survive out here," she declared, frost puffing from her mouth.

With her tangled brown hair, marblelike brownish-green eyes and smooth girlish features, Crum is a face of the homeless that Washington area residents rarely see. Her vinyl tent is hidden behind a clump of trees near Interstate 95, in an area where five other tents have been pitched by homeless campers. She and her boyfriend remained huddled in their tent even as snow fell early Friday and temperatures dropped to the 20s.

Local officials say there might be scores of tents used by the homeless, scattered along highways and nearby wooded areas. Human services workers didn't group the 1,283 unsheltered people they found into categories such as individuals sleeping on benches, living in cars or camping in tents when they conducted the 2009 Count of Homeless Persons in Shelters and on the Streets for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. The total number of homeless in the region was 12,035.

The phenomenon of homeless campers predates the recession, local officials said, and no one knows whether their numbers are increasing. Startled hikers sometimes stumble upon them on remote trails in Montgomery and Frederick counties in Maryland, and Prince William and Fairfax counties in Virginia.

The majority aren't living in tents because shelters won't accept them, said advocates for the homeless. They are frequently rugged loners who would rather sleep outdoors when it's freezing than abide by the strict rules of shelters: 9 p.m. curfews, 7 a.m. wake-up calls and alcohol bans backed by breathalyzer tests.

"The tent thing is a suburban thing" for homeless people who'd rather go it alone, said Pam Michell, executive director of New Hope Housing in Fairfax County. "It's the equivalent of the steam grate and the abandoned building in the city where the homeless sleep."

Advocates who monitor the homeless say tent dwellers often have a drug or alcohol addiction or mental health issues. As local officials prepare to conduct the 2010 homeless census Jan. 27, workers are roaming the woods and trying to build relationships with campers by offering them health care and food, and reminding them that they are welcome in government-funded shelters.

"Living in the woods is a lot harder than living anywhere else," Michell said. "You get a lot older a lot faster. It damages your teeth, your skin. It affects your blood pressure. You get respiratory illnesses. We thought our outreach challenge would be mental health issues when we encountered people in tents. It was health issues."

Crum, who works 20 hours a week as a mess hall lunch server at the Marine Corps base at Quantico, said a full-time job with benefits would allow her and her boyfriend, Thomas Ardis Jr., 27, to leave their tent and get an apartment.

Last month, Crum was given a strong incentive to succeed. During a hospital visit for nausea, she discovered that she's pregnant. It was jarring news, but she vowed to keep the baby.

"I was raised in foster homes, and I don't want what happened to me to happen to him," she said.

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