Van Haven: Terry Gibbs has been living in his vehicle for more than 10 years.
Van Haven: Terry Gibbs has been living in his vehicle for more than 10 years. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Terry Gibbs says he’d been in a romantic relationship with the same woman for seven years when he somehow contracted an STD. He was heartbroken.

“I just wanted to get away,” he says. So he drove to the Days Inn parking lot by Bladensburg Road and New York Avenue NE, one of the city’s busiest intersections. “I put the seat back and went to sleep,” he says. “I slept like a baby, and I’ve been here ever since.”

That first night in the lot was 12 years ago. Gibbs, 48, says he holed up in a room at the Days Inn for a time but has lived in a white van behind the adjacent Hogs on the Hill barbecue takeout since January 2006, when Chinese embassy workers turned the hotel into their dorm and closed most of the lot (District Line, “Days Inn to Become Chinese Dorm,” 1/20/06).

Hogs on the Hill manager Jose Canales says he doesn’t mind having Gibbs back there: “He doesn’t bother anybody.”

It’s the same thing nearby workers say about the three men living in cars in an alley behind the opposite corner of the intersection. Their junky vehicles fit the surroundings; the alley snakes behind several auto repair shops. Landlord Andrew Schaeffer, who owns the 11-acre industrial lot intersected by the alley, worries that the men have nowhere else to go, so he doesn’t mess with them. “Why make it harder for them?” he says. “They don’t bother anybody.”

Alley resident “Ray,” 53, has lived for five months in a white Ford van with a carpet over the windshield and tarps extending from the vehicle’s rear to the top of a barbed-wire fence. A sign on the windshield-carpet announces model grand opening. Like Gibbs, Ray says woman troubles led him to his current lifestyle. Now he’s got a sunny demeanor and an apparent rapport with auto shop workers and customers.

“I feel like this is the new Holy Land,” he says. “I feel like this land is full of holy water.”

He sprinkles some 9Lives Tender Cuts onto a filthy square of plywood next to an upturned plastic food container serving as a milk saucer. Three stray cats take turns gobbling up the food.

Two other fellows live by Ray. His next-door neighbor is a 45-year-old man in a black Ford Explorer. Across the alley, 44-year-old “Macaroni” lives in a white limousine. All of the vehicles have working engines, though the interiors look gutted and most of the tires look flat. The men say police drive through the alley at night once or twice every week to make sure they’re still not causing trouble. The men say they never have problems with the police.

About a month ago, Tony of Tony and Arku Auto Repair says he called the D.C. Department of Public Works to report that somebody had illegally dumped a huge pile of tires on his lot. A DPW employee arrived and spray-painted orange dots on all the tires, then started poking around Ray et al.’s setup. Tony says he heard them joking and laughing before the DPW employee left.

“They always leave,” Ray says.

“They should call the humane society or something,” Tony says, grimacing at the living conditions.

Gibbs says he does more than not bother people; he helps them. Canales confirms that his car-bound neighbor does free mechanic work for folks whose vehicles break down near the intersection. Fifth District D.C. police captain Edward Delgado says he hadn’t heard anything about people living in cars near the intersection, but he’d send officers to “see if we can bring any social services to those people.”

Gibbs says officers gave him a hard time at first. Familiarity, though, breeds civility. These days, says Gibbs, the police occasionally refer his services to people with broken-down cars. They also check on him when it’s cold at night. He says they’ll knock on his door to make sure he’s warm, and he’ll open it to reveal a toasty living space with a TV, a DVD player, and a kerosene heater. A gas-powered generator sits between the van and a blue-gray sedan he uses to store his ramen meals, among other things. “I got a lifestyle that suits me,” he says.

Still, he says he plans to use Section 8 housing vouchers to get an apartment sometime soon. Likewise, the men living in the alley on the other side of the intersection say they’re not particularly attached to their digs. Which is probably for the best: Developer Jim Abdo is looking to buy Schaeffer’s land as part of a plan to revitalize the whole area with retail, condos, and rental units, including a significant amount of affordable housing. Abdo says he’s invested millions in planning and has successfully converted the land’s zoning classification from industrial to residential. Development should happen within the next two years.

“We hope we can transition people out of cars and into residences,” Abdo says. “That would be a beautiful thing.”