By Ryan Cornell
WOODSTOCK -- Some area homeless men aren't just surviving the winter, they're making a statement.
Like a pack of Joads settled in their canvas Hooverville, these men spend each night in the six-tent campsite south of Woodstock by Narrow Passage Creek.
Roy Marshall, who runs The Gym and Lighthouse Grocery Store in Woodstock, organized the makeshift tent city off Route 11. On evenings between 7 and 10 p.m., you can catch him around the site's campfire, sharing life experiences and his spiritual faith with the four to six other homeless men who stay there.
"In rural areas the homeless are invisible! unlike cities where they're on park benches or on the streets," Marshall said. "But I think maybe for the first time in our county and in our town, the homeless that have been here all along are not invisible anymore."
He said the local Sheriff's Office and police department support them and check to see if they're all right. He said people regularly invite them to their homes and feed them. Others have donated the tents and sleeping bags and come by to drop off food and water.
"And it's not by organizations, just people, without going to meetings or programming it," he said. "Hospitality is God's spontaneous unconditional love."
Marshall said he was at first critical of the homeless population when he started operating the gym, but has since gone though a complete transformation.
"It's taken me 14 years to get to the point where I love them," he said. "And now that I love them, I realize that they're the greatest people I've ever met."
A father and his son from Woodstock, who declined to share their names, said they go "wherever God leads them" and have been staying at the encampment for about three weeks now. The father, who collects food stamps and disability checks, said they became homeless when a heated argument with their landlord left them with no place to stay.
"About this time of the year, most of the shelters are full up," he said. "And there's no room and there's a lot of people on the streets, either in the cities or in the country."
He shared some of his experiences of living on the streets before reaching Marshall's campsite.
"I've been on bridges where people drive by and they tell me to go ahead and jump," he said.
He said a driver once threw a bottle at him out the window of a car because he was walking beside the road. Another time, he said, he was nearly robbed in front of a 7-Eleven for a dollar coin.
"The homeless know where the homeless are, but nobody else does," he said. "So if you get robbed or hurt, nobody knows where you are. Nobody knows where you are and nobody cares where you are, because you're homeless."
His son moved to Harrisonburg for work and came back after he lost his jobtrue to a wrist injury. He said he's looking for another job so he can have rent money. His father said they're searching for an apartment that charges about $400 a month.
The campsite sits on an 11-acre property belonging to Jerry Borden, who owns Borden's Auto Sales up the road. Borden said he's known Marshall since he first started lifting at the Woodstock gym a while ago.
Borden said he started letting Marshall and the others camp there in July.
"He [Marshall] wanted to have it to make it exposed to people and make people aware of the local homeless situation," Borden said.
Marshall said this is just one of a handful of things that Borden has done to help out.
"He's helped hundreds of people in big ways that very few people know of," Marshall said. "He's just a true humble servant."
Marshall said this past year has been the greatest 12 months of his life.
"There's a strength that God gives one who is going through this," he said. "Your faith becomes real. It becomes more than a church service or reading the scripture."
He said that the best way people can help them is by giving them gift cards for nearby eateries. He said clothing and food is always appreciated, but they're usually unable to carry around the extra weight.
"My family is still trying to swallow what I'm doing with my life," he said. "And folks sometimes feel sorry for us, but I tell you, this is awesome. This, to me, is living the dream. This is sweet as honey here."
Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or firstname.lastname@example.org