Auto Zone: Billi gets lots of looks from I-395?s motorists.
Auto Zone: Billi gets lots of looks from I-395?s motorists. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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“Billi” doesn’t want anybody to know how to get to his home. He’s not eager to have visitors. And he’s very protective of his privacy, even though he has virtually none.

That’s because Billi lives on the Southwest Freeway (I-395), within view of thousands of motorists each day. His tent is pitched on a median strip between westbound and eastbound traffic just under the 9th Street overpass, which carries motorists from downtown toward the Southwest waterfront. The overpass provides shade and a concrete supporter that largely shields Billi from the view of eastbound drivers. It’s also good for deliveries—when he needs a big piece of furniture, he just drops it from the overpass.

He says he’s lived on the freeway since March, just enough time to carve out a routine.

He wakes up most mornings around 8 and does some stretching and meditation. Then he puts on his Crocs and exits the tent to tend his “garden,” a 20-by-30-foot strip of grass with low concrete walls. Every day, passing motorists give him plenty of weeding to do.

“Plastic cups, paper, candy wrappers, chip wrappers, straws, pens, CDs,” he says, listing the junk people fling from their cars.

Billi cultivates weeds he considers beneficial, such as dandelions and clovers. “Stuff that’s good for you to eat,” he says, noting that dandelions are an excellent source of Vitamin A. He’s used sticks to demarcate two small patches for the healthful plants. He gets water for them from the tap at a nearby McDonald’s men’s room, among other places, and he plans to start catching and collecting what drips from the bridge.

Billi’s cut a few curving paths in the rest of the grass on his median strip. One of them leads to the stone-marked gravesite of a pigeon. Billi found the bird, which had a broken wing, and he gave it a bath. He tried to take care of it for two weeks, but when he came home one day, one of his buddies said: “Your bird died.”

Two months ago, Billi lived a few dozen feet to the east with two other people, beneath an off ramp. It’s much messier there—there’s scattered debris and a different dead bird on the ground around his friends’ two tents. Billi was the one who kept it clean. He likes his new spot because it’s neater, and he doesn’t have to put up with his friends’ bickering.

“I like the privacy, the peace and quiet,” he says. But he acknowledges it’s not perfect: “Traffic is a problem.”

Indeed, the traffic is nonstop and loud as hell. Sometimes during rush hour, cars will be at a bumper-to-bumper standstill, and westbound drivers can get an intimate look at Billi’s setup. They’ll see his 6-foot-tall green tent (which he bought for $50), his broken chairs, his makeshift coffee table, and some of the discarded junk he’s collected. If Billi’s there, they might see a slight black man in decent-looking clothes and a do-rag. If he isn’t gardening, he might be sipping on a big can of Steel Reserve and reading a newspaper. Motorists gawk.

“They stare at my face and shit,” he says. “Sometimes they yell.” He says that sometimes when black women see him washing his clothes or tending his garden, they give him money. For the most part though, Billi ignores the commuters who see him every day—they’re too transient: “I don’t waste my mental energy,” he says.

A few weeks ago, when a presidential motorcade was apparently planning to cross the 9th Street overpass, Billi says a government agent peeked inside his tent but didn’t ask too many questions and went away. Billi says his friends under the offramp have had less luck; one of them has been arrested three times this year for living there.

Billi is coy about his age, saying only that he’s “in the time, in this age, in reality,” but he looks to be in his 30s. He grew up in Silver Spring and started running away from home when he was 8. He likes his situation, he says, and doesn’t want to be thought of as a victim. If he’s a bum, he doesn’t smell like one—he keeps himself and his clothes clean by washing them in buckets.

If Billi feels like working, he’ll take a late afternoon nap before putting on high heels and provocative women’s clothing and heading over to K Street, where he’ll strut his stuff from 7th Street NW to 2nd Street NE. The money isn’t as good as it used to be, though. Billi says the area is less hospitable to his industry than it ever has been, and that he doesn’t go out as much as he used to. The landscape has changed; in a small way the convention center is serving its purpose.

“Right where an elevator is, I used to turn tricks in a fucking car,” Billi says. He’s heard business is better on the far edges of the District, but he doesn’t want to stray to far from home: “I’m too suburban to go out there,” he says.

But an upheaval of some sort may be in order for Billi. Three trucks from the city’s Department of Transportation, along with officers from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and a social worker, showed up at his place on Tuesday morning and told him he had to pack up and leave by next week.

“They told me that people were sending them e-mails, sending the mayor e-mails, and it has been decided that people from Maryland and Virginia were asking, ‘What’s wrong with D.C. that people are having to live on the highway?’” Billi says. “I guess that was embarrassing to the mayor or whatever.”