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A Life Lived Day to Day

When it comes time to do a load of wash, Chris Peterson watches the tidal schedule. Washing is best when the tide is out.

"We actually wash our clothes in the creek. You have to wait until the tide goes out. If the tide's in, the water is terrible," said Peterson, who lives in a patch of woods in Alexandria with Dwight Pickens. The creek is a mainstay for the two.

When Pickens comes back from his laborer’s job after dark, he opts for filling the plastic bath tub rather than taking a swim, to keep clean.

"I don't like going in there in the dark. I fill my tub in the summer," Pickens said.

That's how life is in the woods off Telegraph Road in Alexandria for Peterson and his neighbor Pickens, who have lived in this camp in tents they refer to as "houses," for the past three years with a neighbor, Frank Plotts. The men struggle to get by, working and living the best they can on $38 a day. Each morning, they make it down the road to their day-to-day jobs at CDR, Construction Debris Removal, to do whatever the company has in store for them.

THE MEN have separate tents, a common cooking and campfire area, cats roaming about, and lives that pass from day to day. With their money, they buy food, bug spray, cat food, and propane gas for the stove and lantern.

Peterson started out as a Marine but was discharged when the services downsized in the mid-1980s.

"I wanted to be a 20-year man, but I couldn't stay in," he said.

Peterson's enlistment went from 1979-83. He then got a job at Atlantic Foods and lived in Del Ray, until Atlantic Foods moved to Manassas. After that, he ended up living in a field off Duke Street.

"That was the start of my woes," Peterson said.

Pickens had a similar stroke of bad luck, and now his paycheck is being garnished by Fairfax County for a fine his brother owed. He's trying to get that straightened out with help from the outside. Both men are concentrating on living from day to day rather than the steps that put them in this situation.

Pickens' past was a little hazy, but both he and Peterson traced their homelessness back to the field off Duke Street. They lived for seven years in that field with other homeless men until one of them got drunk and started a fire. All the men were run off by police, and most of Peterson's possessions were taken to the trash dump.

"There were quite a few people over there," Peterson said. "We knew Frank from over there."

Plotts is a Vietnam veteran, they said, who was in the Air Force.

"He's a war vet," Peterson said. "What he told me is he got ejected out of a plane. His pilot got shot."

They left their Duke Street home with what they could carry on their backs. They ended up sleeping under a highway overpass for a few weeks before creating their current living space, in a wooded area in Alexandria by a creek. Somewhere in the mix of things, Peterson got hit by a car as well and dislocated his shoulder.

"We actually had to sleep under that bridge for a few weeks, and then saved up enough money for the tent," Peterson said. Now they each have a tent. One thing they did invest in was a fire extinguisher.

"We actually bought this for the fire marshal," Peterson said.

FOOD IS their biggest expense, with almost half of their daily earnings going toward that. Peterson tries to eat a combination of vegetables and meat when possible, with chicken several nights a week.

"We can buy ready-made food, but I prefer to fix dinners," said Peterson. "I have to keep ice. I have milk every day."

Peterson admitted that eating chicken night after night gets a little old.

"I'm chickened up to here," he said, putting his hand under his chin.

The creek is a source of food, as well.

"I catch big old catfish," Peterson said, holding up a fishing rod.

"Once a month, we'll have a big cookout, spare ribs and chitlins," Peterson said with a smile.

Pickens admitted the cookouts were a special occasion.

"We got to save up," Pickens said. "We don't waste a drop of water."

With no doors, fences or security, the camp is at the mercy of those passersby who can find it. The police have an obstacle course nearby, and every once in a while, the officers run through the camp.

"They keep running. They don't stop," Peterson said.

The police know they are there. Last week, the police were at Pickens' tent early Sunday morning.

"They ran my ID and found there wasn't anything [on his record] and they left," Pickens said.

Other homeless people could come into the camp at any time. Peterson and Pickens know a man in the area who has a heroin addiction and comes by to help himself to their possessions every once in a while.

"There's a guy that lives under that bridge up there," said Peterson, pointing. "He comes and steals our stuff sometimes."

Although they've talked to the other man and reached some kind of agreement, Peterson is ready with a radio as a bait item that the man could steal to satisfy him for the time being.

"I would take it, clean it up, and he'll steal that," Peterson said.

A raccoon was wreaking havoc with them as well, and tormented one of the cats, killing a kitten. One of their cats they called "Bumpledeebumpledee" — because it had trouble walking — became a victim of the raccoon. They've had about 11 cats since they first came to that spot.

"He went off to fight a raccoon and lost," Peterson said.

After the raccoon got the kitten, the mother devised a plan and took care of the raccoon, Peterson said.

"Missy fought her, took a chunk out of that raccoon, and he left," Peterson bragged.

HOPE EXISTS for the men in the form of Phil Rosenthal, who met them once out on Telegraph Road in the early spring. Rosenthal, a mortgage broker from Fairfax Station, is the vice chairman for the Community Action Advisory Board (CAAB), the Fairfax County program that fights poverty in the area. Rosenthal visits the men periodically. He is currently helping Pickens with his legal trouble with Fairfax County and recently got the county to temporarily stop garnishing Pickens' paycheck. Rosenthal owns a house over on Route 1 in Alexandria that he's trying to get the men into.

"I'm hoping by the end of June they will be in the house," Rosenthal said.

Rosenthal hasn't worked out the details with Peterson and Pickens, but Pickens is looking forward to the challenge.

"That bill will be cheaper than this bill," he said of their current expenses.

The homeless men credit Rosenthal for giving them hope, though he realizes that they're just two working men struggling to make it in an expensive area. He is surprised anyone is homeless in an affluent Fairfax County.

"We're going to get a house and a car," Rosenthal said. "That's what the goal is."

Peterson credited Rosenthal with his persistence to help them, but Rosenthal shrugged it off.

"I'm a nobody trying to help people," Rosenthal said.