William Howard has been living at a campsite in the woods since September. But for him, that means his fortunes are on the rise.
"Look where I am now," said Howard. When he became homeless in August, he began sleeping in a VRE parking garage at night, and dragging his suitcase with all his belongings with him wherever he went.
The day before Hurricane Irene hit Virginia, a couple saw Howard in the parking garage and offered to let him .
Soon after that, Howard was given a tent through the Bill Mehr Drop-In Center operated by the Cooperative Council of Ministries. He set up at a spot in the woods where the property owner allows homeless people to camp as long as there's no trouble.
Howard keeps his tent tidy and organized. His air mattress is on one side, next to a neat stack of books and movies that he watches on his portable DVD player. On the other side of the tent is a table with canned food, pots and pans, and his propane-fueled camp stove. A Redskins flag hangs in front of the tent, as if to mark this as a real home.
Trash is all bagged and stacked out of the way until a man Howard met through a local church is able to come haul it away with his pickup.
The area around Howard's tent is cleared of leaves, as is a path through the woods from the road. "I did some landscaping," he laughs. His two main tools, a rake and a broom, sit in their place just outside his tent door.
He piled the leaves around the base of his tent for extra insulation. He also has two tarps over the top of his tent, with a brown one on top to help reduce his tent's visiblity from the road.
Living in the woods is no excuse for bad hygiene, Howard says. In the afternoons, he goes to the drop-in center, where he can take a shower and wash his dishes. Each week, a church pays for him to do his laundry at a laundromat. "I've got more clothes than I know what to do with," he said.
A few other tents sit nearby Howard's, and he feels safe because he and his neighbors keep an eye on each other's belongings. There are other campsites nearby, but Howard doesn't go into them. There are rules, just like with any home, he said. "You don't just go walk into someone else's camp unless you're invited."
Howard, relatively new to being homeless compared to others at the campsites, is making himself as much at home as he can, but he doesn't plan to stay in the woods.
"I'm not going to be out here for five years," Howard said. "I plan to have a roof over my head by next summer."
Howard's route to homelessness was long. After returning from the Vietnam War in 1972, he said, the way he was treated caused him to become very antisocial. "I rode the rails, I hoboed for a while," he said. Eventually, he reintegrated into society and started working. "I decided to look forward instead of back," he said.
Howard worked at restaurants, hotels, for a moving company, and most recently for a traveling carnival. For five years, he would go with the carnival through Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina eight months each year, setting the rides up, running them all day long, taking them down and then moving to the next location. He said he would often get only one or two hours of sleep at night, and at 58 years old, he decided his body couldn't take it any longer.
"I just didn't feel like traveling no more," he said. So this year, he met the carnival's owner in Woodbridge, where he would normally be picked up, and told him he wouldn't be working any more. That left him without a job and without a home.
To get started on his goal of having a roof over his head again, he is trying to get a job at the McDonald's where he goes most mornings to drink coffee and charge his DVD player. "They know me there," he said. The manager gave him a card to apply online and said that he could be hired after the holidays.
"I'll leave it in the hands of the Lord," Howard said about the job. "If it's meant for me, then it will come for me."
If he gets the job, he's going to start putting his money in the bank and saving up until he can afford to pay rent. He hopes to be able to get a driver's license, now that the Woodbridge Elks Club helped him get eyeglasses.
Until he is able to get a job, Howard spends a lot of time at the library, goes to church and Bible studies, and listens to music, from the Beastie Boys to Grandmaster Flash to Snoop Dogg. At night, he listens to Big 100.3 FM. "Classic rock 'n' roll," he says.
Howard is looking forward to getting a solid roof over his head, but until then, he's making the most out of his place in the woods.
"This is it," he said. "This is home sweet home."