When Norm Voss was planning a fundraiser for local homeless residents last fall, he thought he’d attract more donations if he could help people make a personal connection with those living in the area campsites.
After all, Voss said, homelessness was not something he’d thought much about until he and his young daughter, Abby, encountered a panhandler outside a Woodbridge Chipotle restaurant last summer.
Abby saw the man first and told her dad they should give him some money. But knowing he had only two $20 bills in his pocket, Voss said he hesitated.
When they got closer to where the man was standing, Voss said he realized the panhandler wasn’t a stranger. He was an old buddy from high school, a friend who taught Voss to play the guitar. Once he made the connection, Voss said, he wished he had more to give.
“In one second, it turned from $20 was too much to $40 wasn’t enough because I knew who he was,” Voss said. “That’s wrong of me, but all of the sudden it was personal because I knew him. That made me realize, I’ve got to make this issue personal for other people, too.”
Detritus of daily living
Voss, who now volunteers regularly with Woodbridge Homeless Outreach, tells that story because it helps explain why he organized the first major cleanup of an area homeless campsite last month – an effort that pulled more than 10 tons of trash from the wooded stretch between Bungalow Alehouse and Home Depot that’s now home to at least 20 homeless residents, some of whom have lived there for years.
Voss said he first discovered trash was a problem in the camps when he ventured into them last fall to interview residents for a series of videos he made ahead of the fundraiser his band held last December at a nearby restaurant.
Homeless residents’ stories -- which he posted on YouTube and linked to a GoFundMe page -- were heart-wrenching enough, Voss said.
But when he discovered the camps were also littered with trash -- mostly because area businesses keep their dumpsters locked -- Voss vowed to do something about it.
From 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 10, about 30 volunteers fanned out in the woods, gathering trash in heavy-duty plastic bags and loading them into grocery carts they then pushed over hilly terrain to a nearby parking lot, where Voss had stationed a 10-ton, roll-off dumpster.
It was the detritus of daily living -- empty bottles and cans, plastic food containers and broken camping gear – as well as the things homeless residents have no way of keeping clean, including rolls of carpeting and piles of clothes and blankets.
And there were bags and bags of human waste – the result of another sad reality of life in a homeless camp. There are no restrooms.
By the end of the day, the dumpster, donated by a local trash contractor, was filled to capacity. Dozens more bags were piled alongside. All were scheduled to be cleared away by Monday morning.
In addition to local volunteers, the effort attracted the help of a teens visiting Woodbridge for a Christian conference, Dare to Share, held over the weekend at Hylton Memorial Chapel.
Zack Donaldson, youth minister of Nesconset Christian Church in Smithtown, N.Y., said he saw a notice for the cleanup online and emailed Voss to offer his group’s help.
Parent chaperone Lisa Kennaugh said she knew the homeless camp was likely not something Prince William would want to show off to first-time visitors. Still, she said she was impressed by volunteers’ efforts.
“There’s homeless people on Long Island, too,” Kennaugh said. “So we thought, why not try to help them here? I think it’s great that the community is even trying to come together to help.”
‘Where I belong’
Residents of the homeless campsites also pitched in, including Julie, a 49-year-old mother of seven, and her friend, Steve, who share a campsite nearby.
Julie’s children, who range in age from 14 to 30, live with on their own or with relatives in Florida and nearby Triangle. She keeps a scrapbook of their photos handy, which she proudly shares with visitors.
Julie’s been living in the woods since she was evicted from a room she rented in Occoquan three years ago. She said she took care of the homeowner’s house and her pets. But when the woman wanted Julie to put her own cats in a cage, the two disagreed. The woman gave her an hour to move out. Julie left with $8 in her pocket.
Julie said she lived in a storage unit for three weeks before realizing she and her cats would be better off in the woods.
“They say home is where my heart is, and my heart is with my cats,” Julie said. “I believe God brought me here, and I believe this is where I belong.”
Now, Julie spends her time cleaning houses, when she can find clients, and working on her painting.
Although they live without running water, Julie said she and Steve make an effort to stay clean. She joined a nearby health club so she can shower regularly, and she and Steve try to keep their area of the campsite tidy. But without anywhere to put their trash, she said, it’s an ongoing challenge.
Garbage that piles up in the camp attracts raccoons and rodents. And it reeks during the summer months, sometimes making it feel hard to breathe, Julie said.
“I’ve been just praying on it every day and then, thank you Jesus, today was the trash day. And I’m just so glad to get it out of here,” she said.
Now that most of the garbage is gone, Steve said they hope to stay on top of their trash by taking small bags out of their campsite each day. Still, Julie said she’s hoping for a more permanent solution.
“After today, I don’t know what we’re going to do. Jesus gave me that purple bicycle,” she said, pointing to a two-wheeler propped up in her front yard. “But that doesn’t mean I can use it to take stuff to the dump.”
WHO volunteers say the cleanup only scratched the surface of a much bigger problem in Prince William, which is home to at least a dozen large homeless campsites, none of which have permanent trash collection.
“It’s something we’ve been working on for a long time,” said Gayle Sanders, who founded WHO with her husband about a year ago. “None of the camps have dumpsters or any real way to get rid of their trash.”