Unsheltered Homeless Persons at Reston Encampment

Unsheltered Homeless Persons at Reston Encampment

Addressing future encampment closure.

A woman parks a shopping cart full of her possessions in front of the Fairfax County North County Human Services Center, 1850 Cameron Glen Drive, Reston, on Friday, March 29.

A woman parks a shopping cart full of her possessions in front of the Fairfax County North County Human Services Center, 1850 Cameron Glen Drive, Reston, on Friday, March 29.

Reston Strong, which supports Fairfax County's largest tent encampment, arranged interviews with four unsheltered people experiencing homelessness living in an encampment in Reston Town Center North. 

The interviews came days after Supervisor Walter Alcorn (Hunter Mill District) announced at a news briefing that the encampment would be “winding down.” Alcorn called the pending closure process a “humane” plan. 

It will not be a sudden and aggressive sweep or a chaotic shutdown with police entering, as occurred last year at sites across the United States, including the closure of the encampment in McPherson Square in Washington, D.C.

Instead, Fairfax County presents a steady strategy, beginning with its readiness to post no trespassing signs along the encampment’s perimeter, alerting those who call their tents there home. 

Additionally, the nonprofit Cornerstones, which operates the nearby 70-bed Embry Rucker Shelter, is designated to open “a new temporary overflow shelter during the coming weeks,” according to Alcorn. The shelter will be located at 1850 Cameron Glen Drive, adjacent to the encampment and within the nearby North County Human Services 

he United States flag flies above a tent at the Reston Town Center North encampment. 


Center. “We have a lot of folks that need temporary shelter,” Alcorn said.

Maura Williams, MA, executive vice president of housing and community programs at Cornerstones, said, “Our team of skilled staff will be right there, on-site, offering compassionate wrap-around case management support to unhoused neighbors utilizing this new opportunity. Our goal is to assist the temporary overflow shelter guests in resolving urgent needs and work with them to secure longer-term, affordable housing solutions that will ultimately support their ability to regain stability and self-sufficiency."

The housing solutions are the result of the March 14, 2024, approved Memorandum of Agreement between the Fairfax County Redevelopment and Housing Authority (FCRHA) and the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS), which takes effect in May 2024, adding 300 new supportive rental assistance vouchers available to Fairfax County residents, 100 a year for three years.

The agreement’s funding is $20 million. Tom Fleetwood, director of the Fairfax County Department of Housing and Community Development, says, “This funding is so important — it provides critical support services along with rental assistance needed for people to be successful in their new homes.”

"This just kind of blows my mind that the state stepped up and in that level, but we're very appreciative,” said Alcorn. The program prioritizes individuals experiencing long-term or repeated episodes of homelessness and housing instability that frequently lead to crises, hospital visits, or contact with the criminal justice system, in addition to those leaving state psychiatric hospitals. 

While Alcorn could not provide the demographics of the encampment population, data on encampment residents’ interaction with the criminal justice system, or any deaths due to hypothermia, he agreed to look into it. He mentioned that the neighboring senior living facility erected a fence around its property as a buffer from the encampment.

Reston Strong founder Sarah Selvaraj-D'Souza said she anticipates the campground's population rising now that the county's winter hypothermia shelter program closed on March 31. Reston Strong has provided the people in the encampment with food, supplies, and garbage collection for years. They have set up 20 new tents and prepared supplies, anticipating 40 people at the encampment.

Selvaraj-D'Souza said yes when asked whether any Fairfax County Public School students had been at the encampment and lived there — an 18-year-old South Lakes High School senior who dropped out.

“Unsheltered homeless persons” is a term the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Point-in-Time Count regulations use to refer to those “living in a place not designed or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for humans such as tents, vehicles, parks, sidewalks and the like. 

Unsheltered Homeless Persons Who Call “The Hill” Home

Four unsheltered homeless persons at the encampment agreed to speak with The Connection and share their insights. They had heard rumors and snippets of information that the county’s hypothermia program ended the next day, no trespassing signs were poised to be posted along the encampment’s perimeter, and Cornerstones was preparing to open a new temporary shelter on the adjacent parcel in the building at 1850 Cameron Glen Drive as early as the first weeks of May. 

Cornerstones staff would offer support services and aid to them and other unsheltered homeless persons to resolve urgent needs. Even better, staff could help them toward possibly securing affordable housing solutions through 300 new supportive rental aid vouchers for Fairfax County residents. The four voiced initial skepticism about the success of getting a voucher; three said while it is not something they want to do forever, they prefer living outdoors and not being in a shelter.

LT, 29, says, “Nobody really wants to be here. It's just how things happen sometimes. I was a union member and ironworker. I want to get out of here and make sure that when I do, I'm in place physically and mentally to be able to take care of myself." LT is tall, well-dressed, and exceedingly well-spoken. 

LT's mental and physical health concerns have made it impossible, though, for him to continue working, further complicating his living conditions. "It's just a big cycle that keeps repeating itself.”

LT prefers the campground over a shelter because of its safety and autonomy. He can keep his possessions in his tent, whereas shelters have limited room, and keeping things is only sometimes possible.

“I'm more reluctant to go down to the [new temporary] shelter because I've had experience with other shelters that were not good in the past. I've found that being out here, I've been able to get stuff done with little assistance. I recently got my food stamps turned back on,” LT says.

He voices frustration with those who judge and stereotype individuals who are experiencing homelessness, labeling them drug addicts or claiming they're angry. 

“We're human beings; unfortunately, problems like that can happen anyway. Everybody out here is somebody's kid, somebody's father.” LT struggles to retain his composure.

Pop, 65, says he’s been at the encampment for five months and never entered the hypothermia shelter because he arrived with his 15-degree sleeping bag and eight comforters and staked the tarp covering his tent. He would fill out the paperwork if Cornerstones could assist him in acquiring a subsidized apartment on his limited Social Security income.

Health issues arose when Pop was employed before the pandemic, and he told his friend Missy that he would not go to the shelter if he had to sleep six inches apart from another person and catch COVID or the flu.

“So I’m out here, and I don’t mind.” He came from Richmond when the pandemic hit, lived in Herndon with his sister, then got an apartment. Rental voucher funds apparently dried up. Pops said he used part of his $12,000 yearly Social Security benefits for a time to cover the rent but couldn’t continue and took his items to a storage unit. “I’m probably just going to abandon it ... I grew up where if I couldn’t afford to pay for it [in cash], I couldn’t afford it.” He doesn’t have any credit cards.

The areas around Pop’s tent are raked clean, the inside of his tent is tidy, and Pop sits in the opening on watch for people coming up the hill. With his long beard, sparkling eyes, and warm smile, he’d be a great Santa.

AC, who speaks Spanish and has worked at many local restaurants and retail outlets, will look into the vouchers but also has other options.

He inquired if the county intends to close the campsite since they do not want individuals from the campground walking around the local neighborhoods and businesses, inferring to what have been negative encounters. When told the land will be built with a new library, homeless shelter, and other places, AC says, "That sounds good because they are too small."

AC said he had been working at a local restaurant until rain entered his tent, soaking his uniform. It stank, and he couldn’t go to work with “stinky clothes,” as his job demanded face-to-face encounters with the public, 

AC wondered whether he would be eligible for a voucher since his identification says he is Herndon. When he learned that it was acceptable, AC seemed thrilled. He said he'd share the knowledge with the other Spanish-speaking persons in the campground.

Washington says he, too, wants to remain in his tent, having previously lived in shelters. Staying in a tent rather than a shelter is safer and healthier, even in freezing temperatures, he says. "You're basically sick the entire time you're there in a shelter because everybody's sneezing, sniffling, and coughing; people's clothes are wet from being outdoors."

If Washington could get an apartment, that would be great, but realistically, he doesn’t see that happening soon. However, 300 new vouchers could make a difference, Washington says. Asked if he’s going to “go down the hill” to the new temporary shelter when it opens to learn more, Washington says, “I guess I’m going down.”