Two paths climb into the woods up a small hill overlooking the intersection of Randolph Road and Parklawn Drive in Rockville, wedged between a U-Haul storage facility and hundreds of housing units in the Bethesda Park Apartments.
A small radio blares as two of the residents pack as much as they can after county officials arrived Thursday morning to condemn the encampment.
One is a former paralegal evicted last year from her $2,000-a-month apartment in the Kentlands after she was laid off in 2009 as her law firm coped with the economic downturn.
The other, a chef of 15 years at an upscale Spanish restaurant in Rockville, who suddenly found himself unemployed last year when the restaurant tanked under new ownership.
"We have everything you have except electricity and running water. We sleep as warm as you do at night," the woman says. "People think, 'Oh, you're homeless, so you're crazy, you're a drunk, you're a drug addict,' and that necessarily isn't the case. There are a lot of people like us living in the woods."
The encampment peaked at nearly a dozen people this summer, one of whom claims to have lived there for seven years. Police and homeless advocates come by every few months to check up on the settlement, they say, never with a problem or complaint.
That all changed this week when the woman filed assault charges against her boyfriend, with whom she had shared a queen-sized airbed in their insulated tent the last several months. He was arrested at the encampment on Monday, prompting officials to condemn the site on Thursday.
Montgomery County Councilmember George Leventhal has been monitoring the situation.
"I want to make sure that if we're going disrupt the encampment we're connecting them to services," he said in an interview Thursday. "I do think it's an interesting test case for our homeless outreach efforts."
Rain-soaked socks are matted beneath the leaves. A sweatshirt clings to a tree’s leafless branches. Hundreds of discarded plastic bottles pile up beside the paths. Beer cans are scattered all along the way.
A few yards in, the paths open up to a pair of small clearings, each with a cluster of tents tucked beneath plastic tarps strung to surrounding trees with twine and bungee cords. Throw rugs cover the hardened earth beneath. A network of small trenches crisscrosses the encampment, a foot wide and a foot deep, funneling rainwater down the hillside.
Its half dozen residents have decorated the clearings with the occasional comfort: office chairs, windsocks, backyard barbeque grills. Overhead, a birdhouse turns slowly and silently in the wind.
After months living out of her car, the woman moved to the campsite in May. She hadtried living in a shelter last winter, but left after a month: "It was full of alcohol, drugs and violent women," she says. "To go from living in the Kentlands to living here—it's a long road."
Among the cluster of tents set up a short walk away, 48-year-old Mario Nuñez sits with a friend, stoking a campfire as he laments the fact that he'll have to uproot from his home of the past seven months.
Two of his fellow campers had already pulled up stakes and gone. Two others were at that moment panhandling down on Randolph Road, he says, trying to muster up every last bit of cash they could.
"Such is life," he says in Spanish. "What can be done?"
Patch Regional Editor Doug Tallman contributed to this report.