Omar wears his life on his face. Swollen cheeks and a slightly crooked nose are the remnants of a boxing career that ended abruptly in 1995. Deep wrinkles run through his forehead, a testament to years of heavy drinking. Razor burn lines his jaw, the product of rusty disposables that he stashes in a bed of leaves.
A rough-hewn man of Mexican descent, Omar leans against a rock near his tent, empty beer cans and tequila pint bottles scattered in the dirt around his feet. He has the grin of a schoolboy who just orchestrated the perfect prank, but he speaks in short, commanding bursts like a military officer.
Omar, who guesses that he is 45 years old, has been living in a tent alongside the Potomac River within eyeshot of the university for nine years. Several of his friends live nearby, their camp sites all interconnected by a series of trails that they have carved out of the foliage. Together they form an anomalous neighborhood complete with a trash collection program, a leisure area and a set of rudimentary roads. They call each other on cell phones, bike to work together and go fishing in the afternoons. They live remarkably conventional lives in entirely unconventional circumstances.
Just 20 yards from Omar’s makeshift home is the Capital Crescent Trail, a runner’s paradise that travels parallel to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. It is a strange dichotomy — a homeless man’s tent so close to a recreation trail. But Omar might as well be on another planet.
“I’d rather be here, right here by myself,” he says, taking a swig of Patron. “I do some fishing. Yeah, it’s nice to do some fishing.” He closes his eyes and lifts the bottle to his lips again.
The land that Omar and his friends occupy is part of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park, a 184-mile preserve that winds alongside the Potomac River from Maryland to West Virginia. Runaway slaves were known to use its lush woods for cover as they travelled north on the Underground Railroad, and homeless shantytowns were often spotted by boatmen as they traveled down the canal.
Nearly 200 years later, the narrow strip of land between the C&O Canal and the Potomac has not lost its draw for vagrants. No one can explain that better than Jason, one of Omar’s companions and a chronic alcoholic, who says that he spends most of his time beside the river watching ducks. Jason, a short, weathered man, says he came to Washington, D.C., from Atlantic City, N.J., seven years ago and has been living in the woods ever since.
“It’s nice down here, you know, with the ducks and the bridge and the water,” Jason stammers. “It’s just so damn relaxing. I wouldn’t leave now. Not ever.”
Jason can be erratic, but he is always welcoming, quick to offer drinks and cigarettes to anyone nearby. Like many of the group members, he disappears for days and resurfaces with little explanation. Sometimes he claims to have been in a hotel in Huntington County, Ind. Other times he tells stories about being an artist or a doctor or any number of other jobs that require him to travel.
A beer can always in hand, Jason occupies a little cove near the river where he and the rest of the group, of which the number of members constantly varies, have set up their own park. It has a picturesque look to it, with spring blossoms that dangle from the branches of the nearby trees and fallen logs that serve as benches. To the side, an expired fire pit from the night before continues to kick up ash.
To a certain degree, Jason has established himself as the landscaper of the group. He points out all of the areas around the camp that need improvement and rattles off a list of supplies required to accomplish his goals. He has a tendency to ramble, though, and he can be abrasive, especially after he has been drinking all afternoon. Still, his friend Steve, a surly man in his early 40s, defends him with great loyalty.
“He’s a good guy, man. He don’t use crack, don’t use heroine. He kind of just hangs out, you know, tries to get his life back together,” Steve says. “We all got to have dreams like that.”
According to professor William Kornblum, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York, the sense of community between homeless individuals provides an escape from the difficult lifestyle.
“There is a persistent finding that the homeless on the street tend to have bonds between them, and they are long-lasting friendships. In sociology, they call it a ‘communal relationship,’ where they start to rely on each other like men in combat do,” Kornblum says. “They start to see it as them against the rest of the world.”
It is easy to get fooled into thinking that life in the woods is some kind of paradise. From the way that Jason and Omar describe it through the fog of alcohol, it might as well be a vacation in the Bahamas. Steve, however, sees it all from a different angle.
“I hate it here. I just want to get out,” he says bluntly.
But getting out is more easily said than done. Steve has a criminal record and lingering mental issues that would make it difficult for him to acclimate to conventional society. His heavy drinking is also problematic.
According to Gunther Stern, executive director of the Georgetown Ministry Center, an organization that works to end homelessness, the refusal to acknowledge their problems creates hurdles for men like Steve.
“These guys all have serious mental illnesses as well as addictions, but they don’t believe that they have mental illnesses,” Stern says.
As a result, many of them stay in the woods and away from the very resources that could help them resettle.
“I don’t go out there, and they don’t want me to go out there to talk to them,” Stern says. “In terms of survival, you know, they just do it.”
Ignoring issues like addiction and mental illness, however, can have devastating consequences.
Desperation can take its toll on the community, and last December, it claimed the life of one of Steve’s good friends.
“One of my buddies jumped off the Key Bridge,” Steve says. “It was sad, too, because there was a cop there that had a heart attack at the same time, so both of them ended up dead.”
What Steve is referring to is a widely reported story from Dec. 16, 2011. Michael Boehm, an officer in the U.S. Park Police who had been dispatched to respond to a jumper on the Key Bridge, suffered a heart attack and was transported to the Georgetown University Hospital, where he died. Boehm was given a police funeral in Burke, Va., but officials never uncovered the identity of the jumper — Steve’s friend.
Illness and the elements can be just as deadly as the creeping hopelessness. In the summer, Jason says, mosquito bites blanket his arms and the dirt causes his skin to dry and crack open. In the winter, frigid nights can be treacherous, and in the spring, although cops warn residents of expected flooding, heavy rains still threaten the entire riverfront.
Even when the weather is mild, a lack of healthcare can be fatal. Earlier this year, a Georgetown University employee found the body of Clark Carvelli, a 25-year resident of the woods, just outside the university’s Canal Road entrance. According to Joseph, another resident of the forest community,Carvelli suffered from heart murmurs and Hepatitis C.
Stern estimates that there are about 70 men and women sleeping outdoors in the Georgetown area, under bridges, by the canal or in nearby Rock Creek Park.
“Many of them have been homeless for 20 years or so,” he says. “If you are on the street and you have a mental illness, and you just live there for 20 years, we have to as a society say, ‘That’s not OK.’”
Despite the death of his friend, Joseph, a tall man with dangling dreadlocks and a pair of scholarly glasses, maintains that living on the fringe of society is preferable to a conventional lifestyle.
“You can barely get a hello from anybody in this city,” he says. “People will stare at you because you ain’t fitting in, and the only way to get in is to know somebody and then they tell their friends that you can get in. Otherwise, you are on the outside. That’s OK, though, because I know in my heart and in my mind who I am. And I know that I am on the inside, and they are on the outside.”
He gives off an air of certainty, a sense that he is privy to something that everyone else has yet to discover. He is an artist, a fact that he feels he needs to prove by pulling out a pencil and drawing a quick sketch on some old cardboard laying nearby. Offering up stories while his cat, Shadow, clambers over his shoulders and onto his head, Joseph says that he hails from Alabama, where he was a personal bodyguard.
“I’m not the kind of man that wants to jump to violence. I like to give people a fair warning, to be peaceful with them,” he says.
A few minutes later, he keeps to his word. Though he had warned Jason against giving Shadow beer, Jason insists on sneaking some to the cat in a water bottle cap. Joseph turns around and sharply rebukes him.
“Jason, man. Jason, man. I like you. You’re a good dude,” he says. “If you ever give my cat beer again, though, you’re gonna lose your hand.”
Jason interrupts him with a stream of nonsense, and then begins tearing through his pockets.
“I got a veterinarian license around here somewhere,” Jason says. “I think I lost it, but I know I got it here. You got to give the cat something to drink. Otherwise, you get a lazy cat.”
Joseph looks unenthused.
“Jason, man, you’re gonna kill my cat, and that’s like my baby. Just go over there,” he says.
Jason backs down.
Conflicts typically do not last too long within the community, as an unwritten code of law seems to come into effect. Defined ethical codes are common within homeless communities, according toKornblum.
“The homeless establish routines and codes that they enforce among themselves. They depend on each other to look after each other’s stuff, and if they don’t do it, then they have to impose sanctions,” he observes. “Reciprocity when people have so little, that becomes a very important part of the morality of their group.”
Becoming a defeatist is the quickest path toward destruction for members of the small community, so they dutifully wear smiles and continue about their days, ignoring disease, bugs and the ever-present desperation.
If securing a job is the first step to recovery, then Jason and Steve have a head start. Both of them begin their days with an early morning shift at Caring Hands, a document handling service in Southwest D.C., where they help expedite processing for items like State Department Visa applications and DMV registrations. As they both like to say, “We do documents for the State Department.”
“We get a stack of papers and turn them in and then get more papers back, and bring them back,” Jason explains, a hint of cockiness in his voice. The job description seems vague, but in their eyes it makes perfect sense.
Carol Garland, the president of Caring Hands, has employed the men for a while, but her involvement with them goes far beyond a traditional employer-employee relationship. In the past, she has bought them clothes and even tried to get some of them into a halfway house. At this point, she says, her efforts feel futile.
“Jason is not very consistent. He just drinks too much, and he doesn’t always show up,” Garland says. “But Steve is usually very reliable. He definitely has some mental problems, though.”
Jason and Steve are not the only ones with steady employment. Their friend Sarah, a kind, well-spoken young woman, says she used to live in Dupont Circle until she lost her last job after yelling at her boss, leaving her unable to afford rent. Now, she says, she works as a waitress and hopes to find new housing soon.
“It sucks, but I got myself into a financial situation. It’s tough,” she says. “I know I’ll get there, but it’s tough.”