A Different Neck of the Woods
Published: Friday, April 20, 2012
Updated: Sunday, August 19, 2012 21:08
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.