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Post photographer Michael Williamson is traveling across the country covering the economic situation.

Into the Woods In Prince William


Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

WOODBRIDGE, Va.--The soft strumming of a guitar and hard stench of liquor hit Michael and me before we saw J.D. sitting half-naked in his tent.

“I was born Danny and growing up everyone wanted to call me Daniel or Dan, so I just dumbed it down for them – J.D…Just Danny,” he said.

He kissed my hand when I reached out to shake his.

“My philosophy on life is simply this, and write this down,” he told me. “There are no girls. There are no women. There are ladies and they should be treated as such.”

I knew Michael and I should hit the homeless camps in Prince William’s wooded areas before heading to southwest Virginia, but I wasn’t sure what we’d find. I definitely didn’t expect to be charmed. At one camp behind K-Mart, there were only hints of the people who lived there: Soggy playing cards, crutches against a tree and reading material ranging from the Bible to porn.

We didn’t know if there’d be anyone at the camp behind the DMV a few miles away. But when Michael and I walked up, two men in their 30s were playing the guitar and J.D. Glass was sitting on a faded floral mattress in his tent. He wore only a gray sweatshirt and a watch.

“He’s in a bad situation,” Virgil Snyder said. “He has depression from the Vietnam War and he’s drank himself…”

“Into oblivion,” said Ken Sweetman (though I doubt that’s his real name).

The men were among the influx of newcomers to these woods in recent months, but J.D. has made this tent his home for 10 years. A pile of liquor and beer bottles stretched for yards. J.D. said he has severe liver problems that send him to the hospital once a month and are the reason he had to give up his dog of 12 years, Bob. He didn’t want to leave Bob tied to a tree during the long stretches he stayed at the hospital.

“And let me tell you,” he said. “I cried like a baby the day I had to give him up. I cried my eyes out that day.”

That he is at times too weak to care for himself, let alone anything or anyone else, soon became clear to us. When Michael knelt down, his knee landed in a pile of feces. Neither he nor I said a thing. We just kept listening to J.D.

“You know what the weird thing is, and this confuses me so much: Sometimes, when you don’t appear to be anything, that’s when you’re someone,” he said, explaining we weren’t the first to wonder about his life. “Everyone thinks I’m someone. But I ain’t nothing. I’m just a dumbass in the woods living in a tent.”


A magazine rests in an empty Woodbridge homeless camp, exposed to the elements like the people who lived there. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  June 3, 2009; 11:14 AM ET
Categories:  Into the Wild  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Waiting it Out In Woodbridge
Next: Heading South On I-81


Where are the services to take care of this type of problem? The man is obviously mentally impaired. The homeless issue is a national problem that needs to be addressed on a national scale. If one county/city creates a great program and tends to their care it is not long after that it becomes overwhelmed. There are instances where counties will pay for someones bus trip to rid themselves of the problem and make it someone else's. Where has America's compassion gone? It is rare that someone truly chooses the homeless path but handed to them due to issues beyond their capability to handle. There is a fine line between the welfare state and the truly desperadoes. I'm not into a vast welfare system that especially does not have the means to end these vicious circles but am into a system that treats the systems.

Posted by: pkperez | June 3, 2009 5:13 PM | Report abuse

You don't even have to go as far south as Prince William - there are homeless camps right in Vienna/Fairfax. I know because my ex-boyfriend is staying there. He has been on the streets for years but at 46, he is between someone who has just lost their job and the Vietnam Vet JD of this article. Because of temper issues, he is not allowed at the nearby Lamb center and therefore cannot shower, eat their food, etc. I am familiar with his temper and totally understand their stance. It is a vicious cycle for these people, most of whom have substance and mental health issues. Go to the McDonalds at the Pan Am Shopping Center and you'll probably see some of them there who would show you their camp. This story needs to be told and I commend you for it.

Posted by: sandrags | June 3, 2009 5:25 PM | Report abuse

Funny thing is that he was at one time in his life, someones new born baby boy...wrap in a blue blanket. So you never know, never know. God bless and keep him safe.

Posted by: Pstacy | June 3, 2009 5:25 PM | Report abuse

Does he have a right to be crazy? This is a sincere question there is no clear answer to. Many mentally ill people refuse medication, even though it is often due to paranoia or other mental issues that they live on the street.

Posted by: Roxie1 | June 3, 2009 5:33 PM | Report abuse

white males down on their luck get no help from the goverment...
if you were illegal, not white or a drug user, you get noticed, white doesn't...

Posted by: DwightCollins | June 3, 2009 5:43 PM | Report abuse

no offense but after the dems destroyed the economy, there goes we all...
this is our faith unless we act and vote for real change, no the lies the dems have been shoveling at us all these months...

Posted by: DwightCollins | June 3, 2009 5:44 PM | Report abuse

Here in the Southwest, winter is prime time for the homeless. But you can see the homeless on street corners, in arroyo camps, and under bridges any time of year. Services are available, reduced now due to the economy, but were seldom adequately comprehensive. The chronic mentally ill often do not qualify for involuntary care, and when they are treated and achieve "stable" status and are released, they have the right to choose to take medication or not. The combination of drug/alcohol abuse, chronic mentally ill diagnoses and the medical toll that homelessness takes requires the combination of extraordinarily strong services and individual fortitude in order for change to occur. It's sad, but it's true.

Posted by: dkelly04 | June 3, 2009 5:52 PM | Report abuse

I know J.D. and I knew Bob as well... I run a business that backs to one end of the woods referenced in this article and have dealt with the increasing flow of woods-dwellers over the years as they cut through my parking lot and hang out on the sidewalk at times. J.D.'s been sort of a fixture in the community for years and he seems harmles to all but himself but some of the others back in the woods are scary, often under the influence of one substance or another and/or mentally ill. I employ many women who leave the business late at night and have been harassed and intimidated by some of the indigent folks who loiter in the area. I hate to sound unsympathetic, but it's a personal safety issue for those of us who have to (unvoluntarily) co-exist.

Posted by: captainskye | June 3, 2009 5:53 PM | Report abuse

I sadly have to agree with dkelley04 that it takes almost a miracle for many of these people to break their patterns and they often take out their understandable frustrations on those that want to help them the most, alienating friends, family, and service providers. It is an ironic tragedy that in Fairfax and Arlington County and vicinity that is one of the wealthiest areas in the nation that this occurs. Some people are doing good like Pastor Munny Yates who runs a weekly worship service where food and weekly bus passes are provided for 200-300 poor and homeless at Truro Church in Fairfax. Most of these people would have no means of transportation without Pastor Munny, who recently lost his wife and co-pastor Betty in January. Here is a link if it works:

Posted by: sandrags | June 3, 2009 6:09 PM | Report abuse

Do you know how many parents with children are just one unemployment benefit check away from this living scenario?



Posted by: HereComesTheJudge | June 3, 2009 6:13 PM | Report abuse

DwightCollins, While you're on your knees, why don't you choke on Bush's while your at it.

Posted by: cito01 | June 3, 2009 6:13 PM | Report abuse

The crooks on wall street need their money taken away and given to these people.

Posted by: wesatch | June 3, 2009 6:24 PM | Report abuse

Excellent reporting that should inspire compassion, not the usual political craptrap. But now that it's been started, I must weigh in. The DEMS didn't destroy the economy, Dwight. That's why they got elected. Ask anyone who has been suffering since last summer, when the bottom fell out under the watchful eye of the party in power (that would be the Republicans, for those who can't remember anything before January 20). Do you know how much money went to bailouts under George Bush? do you know how many jobs were lost while he was in office? Do you know how much social services were gutted over the past 8 years -- services that would help people like JD? Do you care? Or is it easier for you to remain ignorant? It's always easier to complain than to offer a solution. Fortunately for you, the problem solvers are in charge now, whether you like it or not.

Posted by: ndygrl | June 3, 2009 6:32 PM | Report abuse

God forgive us. This is the United States of America. No one should have to live like this. No one. I guess its easier to bail out banks and corporations than it is to provide a basic existence for the most fragile among us. Of course, the banks and corporations are also political donors.

Posted by: glh032003 | June 3, 2009 6:52 PM | Report abuse

I know many homeless men in CA; most of them are addicts and dropouts, hiding from child support collectors, and they are thieves who have stolen from everybody who tried to help them, or they create so many hassles for their friends and families that on one will take them in. Most will not work because the government will take their pay for past due child support. I don't know where we can house them without trouble.

Posted by: langlrn | June 3, 2009 7:00 PM | Report abuse

glh032003 and langlrn ...

Hmmm I probably know more homeless folks in CA than you do langlrn. I assume by your handle that you see them when they come to your hospital. You really don't know them. Don't act like you do.

ghl032003, well said! Strange isn't? We can bail out banks who make bad investments and literally steal from hardworking people yet we cannot provide basic existence and a modicum of respect for the most fragile, the mentally ill especially. And here we are honoring the man who took that away, not the "dems" ruining the economy but spendthrift republicans who see star wars and Iraq of greater worth, vital to your national interest. I give you Ronald Reagan who closed hospitals like St. E's and created a very large homeless population. Too many are Vietnam vets as the man described here. Soon, there will be many Iraqi War vets ... far too many. Ronald Reagan and George Bush should be ashamed ... deeply ashamed for the way they treated these vets.

Posted by: periculum | June 3, 2009 7:08 PM | Report abuse

I used to be homeless.

My experience with the homeless community taught me more about humanity than any other experience in my lifetime. I too had the arrogance and lack of compassion as I drove my new car past them daily. Once my bad decisions began to crowd my situation and I ended up on the street I remained in a state of shock for about a week. I quickly began to find the resources that were available and started to co-exist among the forgotten. Things that I witnessed will never leave me. The loneliness, the hunger, the children, the rudeness of some service providers and the kindest of some of the others. Of all the painful times I had on the street none can compare to the treatment of a majority of the people who possessed the most. The way they looked at me, with condescending eyes and speaking in such disrespectful tones. The one constant in their responses was clear---get away-get far away from me. What most Americans fail to understand about all homeless people is the single common denominator that unites them. No, it’s not drug abuse. No, it’s not the abandonment of loved ones and neither is it the fact that they are broke. The one common thing they all have in is they are suffering tremendous emotional pain, all day, every day.

It’s been six years since I lived on the street. Every time I see a homeless person I say, out loud to remind myself, There but for the grace of God, go I.

Posted by: dhampton100 | June 3, 2009 7:12 PM | Report abuse

and Ronald Reagan gets a statue for this.

Posted by: dberreth2 | June 3, 2009 7:16 PM | Report abuse

It is amazing to me how people get a selective memory when speaking about those that have passed away.

Case in point, President Reagan. He passed away 5 years ago this Friday, and from news reports, you would think that the man was Mother Teresa. I’ll concede the fact that he’s responsible for scaring the bejesus out of Gorbachev and ending the cold war, and he was a good public speaker, but he wasn’t a saint!

Since it seems that the media outlets and the Republican spin machine will continue talking about the “good” of Reagan, let’s talk a little about the bad and the ugly, shall we?

When Ronald Reagan was governor of California he systematically began closing down mental hospitals, later as president he would cut aid for federally-funded community mental health programs. It is not a coincidence that the homeless populations in the state of California grew in the seventies and eighties.

The people were put out on the street when mental hospitals started to close all over the state. Seeing an increase in crime, and brutal murders by Herb Mullin, a mental hospital patient, the state legislature passed a law that would stop Reagan from closing even more state-funded mental health hospitals.

But Reagan would not be outdone. In 1980, congress proposed new legislation (PL 96-398) called the community mental health systems act (crafted by Ted Kennedy), but the program was killed by newly-elected President Ronald Reagan. This action ended the federal community mental health centers program and its funding.

In closing, the next time you pass by a homeless person screaming to themselves at the top of their lungs, remember Remember Reagan.

And as Paul Harvey would have said, "and that's the rest of the story."

Posted by: helloisanyoneoutthere | June 3, 2009 7:32 PM | Report abuse

People are where they want to be. That is a hard lesson to accept, and no amount of "concern" or upgrading their circumstances will make any difference.

I know why people are liberal. It is for lazy people. All you have to do is find some misery (no shortage of that in the world, even if you have to travel to find the best stuff), document it so the downtrodden are all saints, call for action, and then move on to something else.

The "action" called for (and $) of course, always come from other people. Because just the act of showing concern is enough to make you feel good about yourself, and whether anything happens is well, not your fault.

So I'm going to be lazy and agree this article spotlights an ongoing problem (since at least before Christ), and we just need more compassionate people and money to teach basic hygiene and something called "soap" to the downtrodden.

Oh yes, I worked on Hurricane Katrina relief and the main complaint from storm victims was that they couldn't smoke cigarettes and dope in bed.

Posted by: oracle2world | June 3, 2009 7:33 PM | Report abuse


Can't wait until they outsource all Oracle work to India and China ... they are getting closer daily ... might see you out there on the street eh? ~smiles~

Posted by: periculum | June 3, 2009 7:41 PM | Report abuse

DwightCollins: Excuse me, but where have you been for the past 8 years? It was your republikan buds and their dittohead friends that destroyed the economy. It'll be the "dems" that fix it, like they did under Clinton. Thank god your ilk is out of office and relegated to the noisy sidelines...

Posted by: 4Jaxon | June 3, 2009 7:46 PM | Report abuse

Nearly as sad as this story are the people tying homeless (this problem that Pres Obama is attacking full speed ahead) into a race issue. Its not soley political, but it is the policies that lead to issues such as this.

Posted by: madstamina | June 3, 2009 7:57 PM | Report abuse

Homeless people are mostly drunkin' bums...they get no compassion from me...I've never meet a homless person that was worth a damn. I do think that extremly mentally ill people should be cared for, but I don't think that being lazy and worthless is a mental problem that American tax payers should be responsible for...

Posted by: poopie1 | June 3, 2009 8:22 PM | Report abuse

Oh my goodness, it is sad enough to think of people in these situations, but sometimes even sadder to read the comments. I don't think a single one of these comments is really engaging reason over emotion and grudges. Stop turning everything into the same old arguments. We've heard it all before, and the arguments have gotten us nowhere.

Each person who reads this story and these comments, and considers commenting, needs to one, read the book Glass Castle, and two, go through the heartbreaking work of trying to help those with mental illness (since the majority of studies show that the primary factor in maintained homelessness is mental illness).

Be you dem, repub, christian, aetheist, or anything in between and beyond, no amount of sympathy, compassion, money, rules, regulations, prayers, programs, services or whatnot is going to solve this. You can't force someone to take care of themselves. You can't even force them to learn to care for themselves. And you can't force them to accept help from others. MANY homeless are aware of services that are available to them, but don't want to accept them. They either don't trust people, feel their way of life is better, don't want to accept help for reasons of pride, or a multitude of other reasons. Even the drug use and alcoholism almost always lead back to mental health issues that led to the substance abuse in the first place.

This doesn't mean that we just turn a blind eye to it, but we need to truly address the root of the problem -- it's not Bush's policies or Obama's promises; it's not dems or republicans; it's not more or fewer or different services. Stop looking for bandaids, and look instead to prevent the injuries.

Turn to yourself first -- how comfortable are you with mental illness? Do you still see it as taboo, something to keep hush hush? Then you're part of the problem. Would you be open about it if you suffered from schizophrenia or bipolar? Then how hard do you think it is for those who find themselves in these situations?

We need to move money out of shelters and homeless programs that many homeless for one reason or another do not want to use, and put it into prevention -- mental health programs and services, public awareness to make it less taboo. We still need to change our ways of thinking about mental health.

Don't they say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?

Posted by: yinyang_va | June 3, 2009 8:42 PM | Report abuse

The contributing causes of homelessness:

Posted by: RedCherokee | June 3, 2009 9:38 PM | Report abuse

Dwight Collins wrote:
"After the dems destroyed the economy"......

Don't you mean the National Socialist Democrats, Dwight? Isn't that your boog-a-boo name for us now?

Come on, man. Get with the program.

Posted by: Tomcat3 | June 3, 2009 9:39 PM | Report abuse

There, but for the Grace of God, go I.

Posted by: pgr88 | June 3, 2009 10:45 PM | Report abuse

pkperez writes, in response to this article:
"The homeless issue is a national problem that needs to be addressed on a national scale. If one county/city creates a great program and tends to their care it is not long after that it becomes overwhelmed."
That's because there's a lot of 'homeless' people. Remember the real estate boom? All the businesses that had to pay high mortgages/rents/leases passed on the savings to the 'consumer'. Well, now instead of having 10 years' wall-to-wall prosperity, it's shaping up to be the opposite, lots of people living in cars, lots of people sliding under the wire to get in to the United States to escape even WORSE conditions 'back home', and everyone expects Uncle Sugar to pull an answer out of his pants leg, there. But, what if no answer comes? Then you'll just see more and more folks who are about a case of pork n beans from The End.

All exaggeration aside, we aren't THAT bad off. Yet. Yet. If the unemployment numbers continue to rise, this gentleman will have a lot of company...because rents don't pay themselves, the power company and the insurance company don't accept sob stories or IOU's in lieu of payment, and the grocery store people don't drive down the street heaving food out of the back of the station wagon, either, come to think of it. Soooo...what, exactly, is to become of people that are essentially out of the economy, living below any poverty level you could attempt to gauge, measure, benchmark etc? Do you pass socialism-level taxes? Maybe we'll all be eating cat food in 10 years' time...have a national GDP of about 35 dollars...abandoned cars...burned-out buildings...the whole third-world country thing...and they say it can't happen here...

Posted by: walkerbert | June 3, 2009 11:08 PM | Report abuse

DHampton, great post. I've also been homeless. So true. It really does suck.

Posted by: kmathias22 | June 3, 2009 11:37 PM | Report abuse

Gee Mr. Yingyang_va,

yes, I do know something about mental illness, perhaps a great deal more than you. Have you ever read the DSM IV? Do you even know who Viktor Frankl is? Have you actually read "A beautiful mind" and have not just seen the completely different movie of the same name?

All I know is that too many of these "people" who "don't care for help" are VETERANS OF WARS. They live in a different state of mind because of their experiences there. AND THAT IS documented all over the "yingyang". Many are angry about the services, and lack thereof provided by the VA. Saying that the VA has been responsive to their needs, as you infer, shows your complete ignorance.

No wonder Reagan has an airport and a statue.

Posted by: periculum | June 3, 2009 11:38 PM | Report abuse

I feel he has a right to not want help but he does deserve good will. My perception is they (many) are mentally or emotionally traumatized. Over the years I have given clothing and I once helped one individual better construct his cover. I never got emotionally involved as I did not want to feel obligated but I gave him my best at what I could do at the present time. This is time and effort I feel obligated to do as a compassionate fellow human but I take no satisfaction in it. I'm just thankful I'm not walking in his shoes (even though he may be walking in the same shoes I once did)

Posted by: DD163 | June 4, 2009 12:14 AM | Report abuse

Very moving post by dhampton100. Yours is a success story and if you could provide some information on how you were able to rise up from your homelessness, it would be greatly appreciated. If this blog can help one person leave the streets, it should win a Pulitzer. I hope you sign in again and can tell us what it takes. I want to help my friend and besides being kind, doing what I can, not being an enabler, and praying for him every day, I'm clueless and helpless. Thanks.

Posted by: sandrags | June 4, 2009 9:06 AM | Report abuse

Hey ndygrl-you need to be reminded that the Democrats have been in power in both the House and Senate since 2004. They are the ones that make the laws, not the President. So it is right to blame the Dems for not doing anything constructive for nearly 5 years now. Obama is simply their cheerleader. He can't do a thing without them except veto.

Posted by: savageone | June 13, 2009 5:08 PM | Report abuse

A modest proposal - since we are already murdering millions of unborn each year, why not euthanize the homeless and mentally ill as well? A few more innocents murdered can't hurt. And the rest of us can live the contented peaceful lives we are entitled to. All it takes to do this is extend our imagination from third trimester abortion to 30-year post birth abortion.

Posted by: savageone | June 13, 2009 5:13 PM | Report abuse

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