Dozens given weeks to leave homeless camp off I-95

Workers have posted “no trespassing” signs around a densely wooded, 11-acre property that has housed several dozen homeless occupants. ALEX KOMA | INSIDENOVA

Frank Odonkor has spent the last nine years meticulously tending his garden, growing everything from tomatoes to shallots, and he can’t bear the thought of leaving it all behind.

Odonkor is homeless, but that fact hasn’t diminished the sense of pride he feels about the small patch of land he lives on, just behind the Potomac Festival shopping center along Telegraph Road in Woodbridge.

Over the years, he’s set up an intricate series of plastic buckets and clotheslines to grow his garden, laying down tarps and cardboard boxes to ward off the muck created by a particularly rainy few days of winter. Odonkor is proud to say that he doesn’t beg for money on the streets, choosing instead to fish seeds out of nearby dumpsters so he can grow his own food.

But soon he’ll likely need to leave his makeshift home. Workers started posting “no trespassing” signs on the undeveloped property’s many trees at the end of January, warning the several dozen homeless occupants that they would need to leave by March 1.

Odonkor isn’t sure what he’ll do before then. He’d like to return to his native Ghana, which he left in 2006, and see his mother and brothers again, but he has lost his passport and isn’t sure how to get a new one.

Instead, he may simply go to another empty property he’s seen in the area, though he’d be forced to leave behind much of the intricate system of plants and shelters he’s spent nearly a decade setting up.

“It looks too pretty, and I just don’t want to see it disturbed,” Odonkor said. “I’d hate for somebody to tear it down.”

It’s not entirely clear what will happen to Odonkor’s camp, or why he needs to leave in the first place.

“It’s been a blessing that (property owner Ken Parsons) let them stay there this long.” —Rich Garon, Immanuel Anglican Church volunteer

The densely wooded, 11-acre property, which sits behind several bustling shops just a stone’s throw away from Potomac Mills mall, belongs to a company named “Parsons Potomac Mills,” according to county records. State records show Ken Parsons, the owner of Parsons Farm near Bristow, is the company owner. He didn’t reply to multiple requests for comment on what might happen to his Telegraph Road property, or why he’s asked the homeless people living there to leave now, after many of them spent years making camp there.

“These are people in the toughest of tough places,” said Rich Garon, who volunteers with the Immanuel Anglican Church in Woodbridge and has worked with many of the camp’s residents over the years. “If there are opportunities for [Parsons] to get rid of the land, then it’s his land and so be it. It’s been a blessing that he’s let them stay there this long.”

Prince William County spokesman Jason Grant added that the county hasn’t asked Parsons to evict the residents, directing any questions about the decision to the landowner.

County records don’t show any indications Parsons has sold the property or recently applied for new permits for the site.

Frank Odonkor would like to see his mother and brothers in his native Ghana, but he lost his passport. ALEX KOMA | INSIDENOVA

John Loftus, the sites and building manager for the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, says his agency once listed the land on its database of available land to attract prospective buyers, with an asking price of $3.7 million.

Yet Loftus says the site hasn’t been listed publicly since September 2016, and Manassas realtor Terry Caniford (once listed as a contact for the property) says he hasn’t tried to sell the land for at least the last seven years.

Accordingly, with little evidence suggesting the property has been sold or otherwise targeted for redevelopment, the 30 to 50 people living there are facing an eviction date without much in the way of an explanation.

“It’s stressful, because we have such limited time,” said Orlando, a man who’s lived on the property with his wife for the last year and a half. He declined to give his last name, over fears that his family would be embarrassed by his homelessness. “It’s just constantly wondering, ‘Where are we going?’”

Once March 1 passes, county police will be able to start issuing citations to anyone left on the property, according to Courtney Tierney, the director of the county’s Department of Social Services. Her staff is working to alert people living in the area of the county’s resources for the homeless, which can help them find temporary housing or get substance abuse treatment.

“Everybody’s needs are different, you can’t just say, ‘Everybody needs A,’ ” Tierney said. “It’s complicated. So we want folks to know, individually, there are a number of entities willing and able to sit and talk and help.”

Orlando and his wife, who also declined to share her last name, had already started looking into county services and trying to move out of the woods when the first signs appeared about the March 1 deadline. They’re hoping to find a place to stay through the county’s “Rapid Re-Housing” program, which pairs people with local nonprofits to place them in partially subsidized apartments.

But Orlando noted that the program requires him to first find a suitable apartment on his own, which is difficult without regular internet access, a car or a steady source of income. He lost his job with a moving company a little under two years ago, and after bouncing around a few apartments, he and his wife found themselves in a county homeless shelter. But they could only stay there so long. They set up camp on the Parsons property instead.

Since then, Orlando and his wife have dealt with a variety of health problems — he discovered a blood clot in one of his legs (due, in part, to his time riding around in cramped cross-country moving trucks) while his wife suffered a mild stroke.

Those maladies have made the search for an apartment even more difficult, as they’ve cut off Orlando’s ability to work and saddled the couple with persistent bills for their respective medications.

“The program sounds great in theory, but how am I going to find housing that fits my needs?” Orlando said. “These places cost $850, $950 a month. Even with some help paying, how can we afford that?”

Norman Voss, left, chats with Joyce Entremont, right, on Feb. 15 as they ponder how to help the 45 people living on an empty property on Telegraph Road in Woodbridge. ALEX KOMA | INSIDENOVA

Some local charitable groups are trying to step in and offer help to people like Orlando, as well. Garon’s church and Joyce Entremont, a volunteer with Streetlight Community Outreach Ministries, are working to find homes for the residents, though the looming March 1 deadline

has them uncertain of just how successful they might be.

“You have folks who have emotional issues, substance abuse, a criminal record, so it’s difficult for these folks to find jobs,” Garon said. “I guess I’m a little overwhelmed, because I just don’t know how this is all going to come together. And the clock is really ticking here.”

Entremont says many may have little choice but to pack up their things and move elsewhere, even though she fears that some of the older residents “can’t lug all that stuff on their back to another plot of woods.”

Some plan to try, all the same. Bob, who also declined to give his last name, has spent 10 years living on the property, ever since he got out of prison. He’s an Army veteran, but he says he has no interest in looking for help through the federal government, as he expects he’d simply be told to make the trek into Washington, D.C., to stay in a shelter.

Instead, he’s resigned himself to simply setting up his modest beige tent elsewhere in the county.

“We knew this was coming for a while, we just didn’t know when,” Bob said. “I can’t blame [Parsons]. I see it from his point of view.”

Garon laments that this is becoming an all-too-frequent story in the county, particularly as the eastern end’s rapid development has continued to push the homeless off vacant properties. In her three years with the social services department, Tierney can recall three other large camps around the county being broken up in a similar fashion.

“There’s always been a lot of development in Prince William, but it seems like there’s been more the last year or so, and you have these folks needing a place to stay,” Garon said. “I’m just not sure anybody really has the answer right now.”

Orlando is certainly thankful that so many people around the county, like Garon, have taken an interest in trying to help the people living along Telegraph Road. But he’s also unsure if their efforts will end up making a difference in the end.

“It’s like a waiting game,” he said. “We just don’t know what will happen.”

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Peter Franks