[Hpn] Arlington, VA - Living on the Fringes of Society, Homeless Do Their Best to Create Their Own - Washington Post - June 27, 2002

H. C. Covington H. C. Covington" <icanamerica@bellsouth.net
Sun, 30 Jun 2002 19:44:49 -0500

Out of Options, Then Out of Sight
Living on the Fringes of Society, Homeless Do Their Best to Create Their Own

By Patricia Davis - Washington Post - June  27, 2002

Officer Joe McGrath carefully makes his way down a steep, rocky slope under a
bridge on Interstate 66 in Arlington. He's checking on the woman who lives in a
hole about halfway down the hill.

"It's Officer McGrath," he says, his soothing voice nearly drowned out by the
rush-hour commuters roaring past him. Peering through a makeshift door, he sees
six pairs of eyes glowing in the darkness and the outline of a woman's shoe.

Slowly and tentatively, the 54-year-old woman emerges from the hole. A look of
relief washes over her soft, pale face as she recognizes McGrath. She thought it
was "the highway department" again, threatening to make her move.

The hole, about 8 by 10 feet, is too small to stand up in, she says. It's hot in
the summer and cold in the winter. But she and her six cats have settled into
their little crawl space, and she doesn't want to leave.

"It's like a little cave," she says. "I have put a door on this with a lock and
a screen. I'm very proud of it. With six cats, there's no place I could go. It's
embarrassing to me, but you do what you have to do. It's not like I set out to
be homeless."

Seeking Safety, in Greater Numbers
She lives in a hole in one of the richest suburbs in the nation.

McGrath discovered her there one day when he was driving east on I-66 and
something caught his eye up on the hill, under the bridge. He stopped to

The woman is one of the region's hidden homeless -- a growing community of
people who sleep in the shadows under bridges, in the lush foliage along the
George Washington Memorial Parkway, in back seats of cars or empty parking
garages, in abandoned pedestrian tunnels.

"We're all used to the homeless people that you can see," said Arlington police
Detective Jim Page. "But these people are very quiet -- hidden people, for the
most part. If we can help them, we will."

Many people on the streets suffer from chronic mental illness or substance abuse
problems -- or both, advocates for the homeless say. Homeless shelters, even
those without waiting lists, are not always the answer.

Lora Rinker, co-founder and executive director of the Arlington Street People's
Assistance Network, said the problem is getting worse in a region with little or
no housing for those with the lowest incomes. Her group estimates that there are
at least 700 homeless people on Arlington's streets during any given year but
believes the actual number is much higher.

Already this year, Rinker's group alone -- one of a number of agencies serving
the homeless in the county -- has helped 317 homeless people.

"It's a very difficult population to reach," said Rinker, whose nonprofit
organization works to get people off the streets and into housing. "What they do
is try to find a place to have protection from the weather. It gives them a
place to feel safe."

The problem isn't confined to Arlington. A recent study by the Metropolitan
Washington Council of Governments found during a coordinated one-day count that
there were 13,982 homeless people living in the region, compared with 12,850 the
previous year. More than a fourth of them were children and nearly half were
disabled. They come from all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

"I've met people out there who were naval officers who had a drinking problem
and lost everything," Rinker said. "They look just like us."

McGrath knows many of the people living on the streets, either by face or name.
He treats them with respect, and sometimes they end up helping each other,
trading information. "I know every last one of them," he said. "If I don't,
they're new in town."

For the most part, the police leave them alone unless they became unruly or
break laws -- like any other citizen.

"There are times when people with homeless status engage in behavior that
requires enforcement status," said Arlington Police Chief Edward A. Flynn. "Then
we have to be very official. But there are a lot of people out there with no
place to go and no place they want to be except where they are. We just have to
provide policing where we find it. And that means compassion as well as

A Choice With Little to Commend It
Joe, 41, often sleeps under a bridge above Route 50 in Arlington. When he stays
there, he and his neighbors under the bridge follow certain house rules: "Keep
it clean so the county won't take your stuff; you don't just bring anybody up
here; and you don't come up here just anytime you want," he explains.

"We all like to know who is here," says Joe, who did not want to give his last
name. "We trust each other."

On a recent evening, Joe is tucked into a sleeping bag on his precarious perch
underneath the bridge. His neighbors aren't here now, but plastic garbage bags
bulging with their belongings hold their spots.

He uses a steel girder for a shelf, where he keeps a can of Vienna sausages, a
tin of sardines and a cup of ice from McDonald's, which has already melted. A
can of malt liquor sits next to the book he's reading, Danielle Steel's "The
Ghost." He's on Chapter 7. He's just started taking a college class, he says,
pulling a brochure out of his backpack that says "Criminal Justice."

A night of tossing and turning could be dangerous for Joe -- he could easily
roll off his perch and down the steep incline onto Route 50 below. But Joe says
he feels safe here, much safer than living on the streets in the District.

He likes his spot because there is usually a breeze and it stays dry. When it
gets too hot, he'll move to the grassy knoll nearby until the mosquitoes drive
him back under the bridge. He says he takes showers at a nearby school and eats
the free food served to the homeless several times each day.

The cops leave them alone, he says, and he's hoping the fox, opossum and raccoon
they've seen lurking around will, too. He hates it when the traffic backs up on
Route 50 below him because he "can't get up and take a leak."

"We've got a little mouse here, too," he says. "We call him 'Speedy.' The guy's

But despite the problems and challenges, Joe prefers sleeping under the bridge
than going to a homeless shelter where, he says, "they're too busy getting
somebody in a program." Yet, he often talks with his homeless neighbors about
"gettin' it together."

"There's nothing nice about being homeless," he says. "Don't nobody chose to
live outside."

For the Sake of Six Cats, Perhaps
Detective Page slowly walks through the darkened pedestrian tunnel across the
street from the Pentagon. "Anybody home?" he says.

No one is here now, but the homeless people who sleep here have left their
makeshift home tidy. One of the mattresses has been carefully made, the flowery
bedspread neatly tucked in. The work boots are lined up, and some clothes,
including a white button-down Oxford shirt, are stacked inside a plastic Sutton
Place Gourmet shopping bag. The brooms leaning against the tunnel wall look
recently used; the drains are clear. There's a three-day-old newspaper.

Page stumbled upon the abandoned tunnel several years ago while on patrol.

"I just happened to see it one night as I was coming up this ramp," Page says.
"I said, 'I wonder what it is?' "

Homeless people were living in it then, too, he said. It's a sturdy structure,
almost like a bunker, with a panoramic view on one end of the Pentagon. Most
motorists whizzing by on I-395 have no idea it's even here.

In the same way, motorists commuting to work along I-66 in Arlington probably
haven't noticed the woman living in a hole under one of the bridges. She
suspects some may have spotted her. As they pass by, they'll go
"toot-tooty-toot" with their car horns, she says.

Asked her name, she hesitates, then declines. "People can look at you like
you're totally insane," she says.

She says she first became homeless after her father sold their family motel on
Lee Highway. She says she has had trouble finding places to live because of her
cats and has been living on and off the streets for seven years now.

"When I was evicted, I took everything with me," she says.

She stores most of her belongings in plastic garbage bags that she stashes in
the underbrush around the hole she calls home. She is articulate and talks
passionately about her difficulty making it as an artist.

"I paint pictures of the Shenandoah," she says. "I'm trying to do whatever it
takes to be an artist. If this is what it takes. . . ."

After making sure she is okay, McGrath turns and hikes back up the slippery
slope to his cruiser.

"A lot of these people have had things happen in their lives and they've never
been able to recover," McGrath says. "Now she hides her cats in a hole."

 2002 The Washington Post Company

H. C. Covington, Nonprofit Knowledge Specialist
Homeless and Housing News