Roman B. Douglas walked off an airplane and into Dulles International Airport with her 22-month-old daughter on her arm, a little more than $100 in her pocket and no idea where to go next.
As she collected her stroller from the flight attendant and joined the stream of passengers headed toward baggage claim, she said later, it struck her as funny that they resembled everyone else in the crowd.
"We look like we have somewhere to go, or someone to pick us up, but we don't," she recalled thinking.
Douglas, 37, said she walked "like a blind person" through the airport, asking for help from everyone: a flight attendant, the volunteers at the Travelers Aid stand and, finally, an airport police officer who helped find her a shelter for the night.
Dozens of homeless people every year wind up on Dulles's doorstep without a destination beyond the airport code punched on their tickets. Some are sent by overextended relatives, and some come seeking asylum or fleeing abusive husbands. Others wander in from closer by, seeking a dry or warm place to spend a few hours, or longer. Many end up in nearby homeless shelters.
There was the woman who always wore a red dress and pushed her belongings in a luggage cart. She was placed in shelters but kept coming back. Then there was the woman who made a tent out of blankets and chairs and camped out in the terminal; she was mentally ill and pregnant and was sent to the state hospital in Staunton. And over the years, there have been "half a dozen or so people who were serious about wanting to go see the president and had to be talked out of it," said airport police chaplain Charlie Grant, who often is called on to help when someone is stranded at the airport.
Grant, 69, is a man of the cloth who wears a navy blue windbreaker and a two-way radio. He moved to Sterling in 1969 to open a church and became known for opening his home -- where he and his wife were raising 10 children -- to runaways or vagabonds.
"It's hard for me to say no when somebody's found homeless," Grant said.
In the '80s, he started Good Shepherd Alliance, a religious charity that operates homeless shelters in Loudoun County, one for women and children, one for men and one as a winter warming center. About 10 years ago, Grant went to work for the Dulles Airport police as chaplain.
Since then, he estimated, he has made the trip out to Dulles in his Chevrolet TrailBlazer about once a month to take people to shelters.
"Dulles Airport is a large hub," said Janice King, director of social services for the alliance. "People can leave the airport and have three places to look for a job: Virginia, Maryland, D.C."
King said some county departments of social services buy people plane tickets to places where they might be able to hook up with jobs or relatives. Sometimes that works out, but not always.
"In this field, we call it 'Greyhound Therapy,' " said Michael Stoops, acting executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.
He said the practice of moving homeless people around has a long history: from a rural minister giving a bus ticket to a homeless person to look for services in a bigger city, to a "family reunification" program in San Francisco where the Department of Human Services provided hundreds of homeless people with one-way bus tickets to anyplace where they can find a verifiable family member who is willing to take them.
But sometimes, "you are not ending that person's homelessness; you are just sending them to another city to be homeless again," Stoops said.
Cheryl Amey, director of research and evaluation at the National Center on Family Homelessness, said: "When you are living on the edge like that, you need all the help you can get. We see folks return to where they grew up or return to where their sister lives. It doesn't take something huge to have your life fall apart, so they often seek to go to a place where things were better."
Steve Berg, vice president of programs and policies for the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said, "I don't think that's as common as it used to be. The whole issue of homelessness is a little more visible, and there are more resources. If you send people away, they will come back. Rather than denying the problem of homelessness or sending the problem somewhere else, people are saying . . . we have to come up with solutions."
He said it's now more common for a homeless person to come to the airport seeking a warm and safe place to spend time than by coming through as a paying passenger.
"It's open all night; it's warm; it's relatively anonymous," he said. "The airport could be a place to go and not get yourself in trouble."
Amid the chaos of comings and goings, it can be easy for homeless people to disappear for a few hours or a few days before someone spots them bathing in a restroom or fast asleep behind the Guava & Java stand.
Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport gets a homeless case about 10 times a month, many of the people arriving by light rail, said Capt. Thomas Morris of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police. They can be given a criminal summons or be sent to a shelter. At Reagan National Airport, the Rev. Stan Esterline, the airport chaplain, had no numbers but said he sometimes finds homeless people asleep in the chapel.
When Douglas arrived at Dulles on that October afternoon, she had no intention of hanging around the terminal. She was returning to a place she had called home for 15 years. She held temporary office jobs until a couple of years ago, when she had a baby. In May, after not paying rent for 11 months, she was evicted. Her daughter went to stay with her father, and Douglas was homeless all summer. Then she and the child went to stay with her brother in Minneapolis; after a month, he bought her two plane tickets back, she said.
She returned to the same situation she had left but prepared to start over.
For at least one night, things went okay.
Grant pulled up at the arrivals gate that night to meet Douglas and her daughter, Yenee, cranky from a long day's travel. He helped them with their heavy suitcase and stroller and drove them to the alliance's Leesburg office, where they checked in.
Later that night, Douglas was finally escorted to a room at a women and children's shelter, where she sank down wearily on a bed. "We have a place to stay, and my baby is with me. Thanks be to God," she said.
Home for now, but still not sure where she might land.