Many of the tents in the woods near the Potomac Mills mall in Northern Virginia have already vanished. The men and a few women still living in this enclave off Telegraph Road spent much of this week packing up makeshift homes that, in some cases, they’ve had for 15 years.
By Wednesday, they must leave.
Parsons Potomac LLP, which owns roughly 11 acres in the fast-growing Woodbridge area, posted signs on the land last month telling the approximately 40 tent-dwellers to be out by March 1 or risk being cited for trespassing.
Longtime residents of the encampment blame their predicament on a younger group who, they say, created an eyesore in recent months by leaving large mounds of trash on the land that were visible from nearby roads.
The younger folks have drifted away. Those left at the site Monday were loading up barbecue grills, beds and propane heaters, wondering where they would end up in an era when even a studio apartment in Prince William County rents for $1,400 a month.
“At the end of the day, people have got to live somewhere,” said Orlando Jackson, who moved into the encampment with his wife about two years ago after they both lost jobs with a local moving company. “Homeless shelters out here are full to the max.”
Not true, said Courtney S. Tierney, director of Prince William County’s Social Services Department. With 187 beds available per night, the county’s four shelters have not reached full capacity since November.
But while the Washington area’s homeless population has been declining in recent years, local advocates for the homeless say tent cities are on the rise in Prince William, which this year became the state’s second-most-populous jurisdiction.
Their populations are a mix of low-wage workers unable to afford homes in the area and the chronically homeless who — due to criminal records, substance abuse or mental illness — prefer to live outdoors instead of inside a shelter, where they are housed close to others and must abide by a long list of rules.
Nicole Lamb, a case manager for Action in Community Through Service, a nonprofit organization based in Dumfries, said there are roughly 20 tent encampments in the county, compared with just a handful about a decade ago.
Most, like this one, are on private property, Lamb said. “The reason why is, with public property, they get kicked out quicker,” she said.
The clusters of tents and canvas tarps behind the Potomac Festival shopping center has been there longer than most.
Near one tent is a series of buckets where Frank Odonkor, who is nicknamed “Farmer Frank,” has grown tomatoes and vegetables to feed himself.
In another clearing is the fire pit that Kenny Shendock constructed with rocks two years ago, creating a place where he could sip his morning coffee. He became homeless after suffering a brain injury in an auto accident in 2015, and decided that he preferred living outside.
“It’s been an experience, I can tell you that,” said Shendock, 51, who recounted how he was poisoned by carbon monoxide from a defective heater and how a neighbor died in his tent during a cold spell the following year.
Several camp residents expressed gratitude to Kenneth F. Parsons, the limited liability partnership’s registered agent and owner of both a Manassas property management company and a dirt farm in Dumfries, for allowing them to stay on the property long as they have.
Parsons did not return multiple messages this week. A county government spokesman said a code compliance inspector cited Parson’s company for the trash toward the end of 2017, and said county officials believe Parsons intends to develop the site.
Prince William County Supervisor Frank J. Principi (D-Woodridge), who represents the area, said a team of social workers and other staff will go to the property Wednesday morning to offer help to anyone still there, including spots at a nearby shelter .
“They’re not being simply kicked off the property,” Principi said. “All we can do is fight and see if we can’t get them the services they need and the jobs they need to help them get back to a better life.”
A trio of men who served in the Vietnam War refer to their section of the tent city as “Veteran’s Corner.” All three are trying to get back on their feet after spending time in jail for felony sex-crime convictions.
John Howard, 65, was convicted of forcible sodomy of a minor in 1990. He said the fact that he is a registered sex offender has kept him from qualifying for apartments. On Monday, he and J.D. Glass, who was convicted of aggravated sexual battery involving a minor in 2013, loaded belongings into a pickup truck headed for storage. They said that they were trying to find out if they could stay in a place owned by another registered sex offender.
Glass, 62, embodies the fragile stability of many chronically homeless men. In 2009, when he was in the throes of alcoholism, he was featured in a Washington Post article, living in filth inside the tent encampment in Woodbridge.
The following year, Glass was in recovery and had seemingly thrown off his alcohol addiction, found a permanent apartment and become an advocate for the homeless. The Post wrote about him again.
In 2013, he had a relapse, and he was convicted on the sexual battery charge. After serving his sentence, he returned to the tent city. He says he is sober, but is not optimistic about his chances for a permanent home.
“When you’re a convicted sex offender, your options are extremely limited,” Glass said.
Robert Thompson, 60, has lived in the tent city for 10 years. He spent the first part of this week wondering how he would cart away his Army tent and belongings, which included some propane tanks, a VCR and a TV that he uses with the help of a portable generator.
He had already decided his next move.
“I’m going to be going up the street a little ways,” Thompson said. “There’s another little woods, where I can set back up.”