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Curbing Trespassing

At least eight homeless people sleep in Reston's wooded areas every night.

Lake Anne residents may have recently noticed a plethora of No Trespassing signs installed along the edge of the woods surrounding the village center.

Reston Association has been posting the signs to discourage a growing number of vagrants from sleeping in the wooded areas and to persuade people who have been loitering and drinking alcohol there after dark to find someplace else.

"Lake Anne seems like its the hot spot," said Larry Butler, RA's director of parks and recreation. "But it's really any secluded area in Reston where someone can be out of sight and find a comfortable place to hang out."

The No Trespassing signs are part of a new push by RA to crack down on people sleeping overnight in the woods and loitering after dark. Butler said RA has been receiving complaints from its members that people are leaving litter in the woods, lighting camp fires and generally intimidating residents along darkened pathways and public spaces.

RA's Board of Directors is expected to pass a new policy at its December meeting that would allow Fairfax County police officers to enforce trespassing and loitering ordinances.

"This policy would give us a little extra measure of help," Butler said. "We're talking about potentially dangerous behavior here. It's a risky endeavor."

BETWEEN eight and 10 homeless people have been sleeping in Reston's woods every night, said Marte Birnbaum, director of the Embry Rucker Community Shelter.

Sometimes homeless people refuse to sleep in shelters because of bad past experiences, addictions, mental illness or apprehension about the strict rules, Birnbaum said.

But more often, vagrants sleep in the woods — either in a tent, on a mattress or just on the ground — because the five Fairfax County homeless shelters are perpetually full and the amount of available affordable housing is declining.

"That's the sad reality, there's often just no room," Birnbaum said. "There's just not enough space."

Also, some "unsheltered homeless" people prefer to be by themselves, disliking the loss of privacy that comes with homeless shelter living.

"Sometimes people tell us they'd just rather live on the streets," said Daryl Washington, the Community Service Board's homeless manager. "When you're out there by yourself, it's easier to do what you want and be alone with your own thoughts."

The CSB offers services to "unsheltered homeless" people living in Fairfax County, using teams of outreach officers who locate and assist them if help is needed or wanted.

"We try to tell them there are things they can do to improve their living situation," Washington said.

During the three-month period between July and September, the CSB provided basic services to 70 people living in the woods in the county. Overall, an estimated 1,110 families and 816 individuals are homeless in Fairfax County.

Over the last three years, shelters throughout Northern Virginia have become increasingly full. During that same period, Fairfax County has lost at least 1,300 affordable housing units.

THE HOMELESS PEOPLE living in Reston's woods have left RA officials with a difficult problem, said RA Board Vice President Doug Bushée (North Point).

On the one hand, RA cannot allow vagrants to continue living in the woods, leaving litter in common areas, drinking in public and worrying homeowners. But on the other hand, RA does not want to simply push the homeless people to Reston's borders, potentially adding to the woes of people already down on their luck.

"We don't want to just kick them off our land," Bushée said. "This is an opportunity for us to do something positive here."

At the Dec. 6 RA board meeting, Bushée said he will propose the board approve the policy to crack down on loitering and people sleeping outdoors, while also formally supporting Reston Interfaith's efforts to bring more housing options to Reston.

Reston Interfaith, which runs the community shelter and other social service programs, is working to bring to Reston more "Single Residency Occupancy," which are dormitory-style housing options for single low-income or homeless individuals.

The SROs, Bushée said, would give vagrants a viable alternative to living in the woods, particularly if they have been turned away by fully-occupied shelters.

ROBIN SMYERS, the RA board's Lake Anne/Tall Oaks director, said she and other board members do not want to worsen the lives of homeless people, but something needs to be done to cut down on the drinking in public and general intimidation of homeowners.

"It can be upsetting to families and kids," she said. "It's a concern for the safety of residents."

By passing the policy, which was deferred from last week's RA board meeting, RA would merely be allowing police officers to help make Reston a bit safer and serene after dark, Smyers said.

"If you can't feel comfortable and safe in your own neighborhood, then we're not doing something right," she said.