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Homeless Pair Finds Home in Nearby Woods

A stroke of bad luck and circumstances landed "Jim" in a tent in the woods for the past seven or eight months, roughing it with a female companion. He's hoping for "a miracle" to pull him out of his rut, but the bad seems to outweigh the good in his predicament.

Jim has been at his camp for about seven months and looks back at how he ended up in the woods. He doesn't put blame, but alcohol did play a role, he remembered.

"I had it all at one time. A circumstance came up, and I took the easy way. Stopped calling my sponsor, stopped going to meetings [Alcoholics Anonymous], and I ended up at one of those motels," he said.

His biggest complaint about living in the woods of Fairfax County is the passers-by he encounters from time to time. Although his camp is isolated and can easily go undetected, encounters with others do happen.

"People coming through stealing stuff," he said.

He's had his clothes stolen or burned, his radio and watch stolen. One time, their voices could be heard outside of the woods, so someone called the police and they showed up at the camp.

"The police know we're down there. Last time they said it was reported that two people were down there arguing," he said, noting that arguments between Jim and his companion are nothing to get excited about. "Every now and then [they argue], there's no need to call the police," he said.

Now, Jim and his companion, who did not want to be interviewed, look forward to the first of the month — when his disability check comes, an e-mail promising money, a visit to the Lamb Center, or a cheap meal from the FACETS truck, which is the Fairfax Area Christian Emergency Transitional Services. His back trouble is the reason he gets disability, but the checks don't amount to much.

"I scrape together $1.50 for both of us. The food's not bad," he said.

Jim's jobs in the past few years included a stint at National Car Rental and a real estate tax place. He lived in a motel near Fairfax Circle then, which was set up through the Lamb Center, a day shelter in the City of Fairfax. According to Jim, the Lamb Center is not putting him up in the motel any more because of his tendency to start drinking after getting in a motel room.

"The Lamb Center is not going to do that anymore. They think it's not doing any good. They want me to live my life the way they want. At 51 [years old], that's pretty hard to do," he said.

Barbara D'Annibale is the administrator at the Lamb Center. The Center wants to help people with immediate issues as well as looking to the future and changing lives. It's called the "plan," according to D'Annibale. She knows Jim and his situation.

"We were really trying to help him put a good plan together. He doesn't want the plan," she said.

Despite all the drawbacks to the Lamb Center, Jim finds himself going back from time to time. He has his mail delivered there and occasionally gets a shower, although walking from his camp to the Lamb Center is a few miles. Jim admits that it was the alcoholism that was tough to beat, and that, combined with his back trouble, makes it tough to maintain a steady life. He did make friends down there, though.

"Bob died; Dave, they found cancer in his pancreas," he said of Lamb Center volunteers he's met in the past.

D'Annibale said he doesn't come around very much anymore because, in order to use the facilities, they insist on looking ahead.

"We want to talk about the plan, take the steps necessary to get out of the woods," she said.

At the Lamb Center, there are about 10-20 people that come in regularly who live in the woods somewhere around Fairfax, according to Steve Schlossberg, director. D'Annibale mentioned some of their services.

"People can shower here. We serve breakfast and lunch, and they can use the phone," she said.

Newspapers are available at the Lamb Center with job listings.

THROUGH THE YEARS, Jim has lived in Orange, Va., where his sister currently lives, and in Washington, D.C. He also stayed a few weeks with a relative in Alexandria.

"I was hoping my Section 8 would come through," he said, of the state housing voucher he applied for.

His identification lists him as an Arlington resident, which doesn't help him when trying to take advantage of Fairfax County facilities. Jim and his companion know that winter is coming and the woods they live in are slated for development, so they will have to move sometime.

"If they had more housing" is one of the county drawbacks Jim experiences.

"I have been checking them [shelters] out. My case manager tells you to go out and get a job," he said.

The Koinonia Foundation in Franconia is a similar charitable organization. Lisa Edwards, executive director, has people living in the woods that come into Koinonia for a hot meal and clothes.

"Four or five at a time used to come every couple of weeks. They said they lived off Van Dorn [Street]. They're very private," she said.

Edwards sees a lot applying for Section 8 housing vouchers but noted that those vouchers are only accepted by Fairfax County in October and April.

"There are other public housing programs people can apply for over the year," she said.

Although Koinonia doesn't help with local hotels, it does help families with housing referrals. Single people have to go to shelters.

"We try to work with them until things change. We deal with it on each individual situation," she said.

For now, Jim and his companion will continue to hand-wash their clothes, stay warm by the fire in their makeshift fireplace, go to the FACETS van at 6 p.m. and do what's necessary to survive.

"Is it lunch time already?" he asked one afternoon. It's hard to keep track of time with no watch, living in the woods.