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From far away, the 40-foot Christmas tree that sits in Georgetown’s Francis Scott Key Park, at the foot of the Key Bridge, is a perfect evergreen cone. A closer look yields two revelations: (1) The tree is fake, and (2) it contains a nest of sorts.
There’s an opening on the side of the tree facing the Potomac River, leaving enough room for a person to bend down and walk inside the tree’s hollow interior. Has someone squatted inside the ready-made tepee?
One hunched step grants passage to the secret winter wonderland. Cardboard boxes and snack containers are strewn throughout the flattened grass, illuminated by patches of sunlight poking through the holes between the faux fir branches. There’s also an empty bottle of Cleveland Park Virgin Island rum, an Olde English 40, a 20-ounce Coke, a Hi-C juice box, and an Oreo wrapper.
“It gets cleaned up daily, but the trash is a result of the homeless using it as a shelter,” says Ken Gray, executive director of the Georgetown Partnership, the business association that sponsors the M Street tree. “We have learned over the years to try and accommodate it.”
The uncovered paneling at the tree’s base is the accommodation that the partnership devised this year. In years past, Gray says, enterprising homeless people would rip apart the sewn needle panels to create larger holes, passageways into the tree’s sheltered interior. These impromptu journeys would often undo electrical connections, leading to unsightly swaths of darkness over large sections of the trees—and a steady stream of complaints about the lack of full illumination.
“It wasn’t to create a shelter for the homeless,” Gray says of the opening. “It was an effort to keep the tree lit.”
Gunther Stern, the director of Georgetown Ministry Center, a homeless-outreach program, disagrees with Gray’s characterization of the tree as a rest stop for the indigent. “I’ve heard him say that it keeps the elements off. Just looking at it, I don’t see how that’s possible,” Stern says. “I know in the past people have slept in there, but I haven’t seen any evidence of that this year.”
Stern says he knows of two or three men who might be using the tree as a place to drink out of sight, but adds that the area has been particularly quiet this year. “Every year the population of homeless people in Georgetown is dramatically different,” he explains, and this year it seems that a greater number of homeless men have sought shelter across the river in Rosslyn. Dan, a sometimes-homeless man who knows the men who hang out near the park, says sleeping in the tree is a thing of the past. “That was years ago,” he says, shaking his head. CP