Finding Havens for the Homeless
Thursday, January 15, 2009
From the steam grates of Pennsylvania Avenue to the porticoes of the city's grand buildings, homeless Washingtonians who live inside the nation's tightest security zone are being encouraged to decamp during the inauguration for shelters in the city's outer neighborhoods.
The security sweeps will probably begin Monday. Buses will make one-way trips to two of the District's largest shelters, which will remain open round-the-clock, said D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6).
"Everyone has to be out of the perimeter by then," Wells said.
Although everyone is required to be out, homeless people, like all residents, could line up to watch the festivities on the Mall or the parade route. They must, however, follow the bans on large duffel bags and suitcases.
The issue is how to avoid making people feel like they are being "carted off," Wells said.
In years past, U.S. cities grappling with sizable homeless populations rounded them up in mass arrests, bought them one-way bus tickets to nearby states or gave them movie passes to keep them out of sight during such events as the Olympics or political conventions, said Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.
It wasn't until the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, where officials opened shelters and welcomed homeless people with warm food, that a more humane precedent was set, Stoops said.
The District plans to follow that city's lead and open all of its shelters for 24 hours during the inauguration, offering warm beverages, food and live television feeds of the day's ceremonies, said Mafara Hobson, spokeswoman for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D).
"We'll be open all day. We'll make it a day of celebration, a fun place to stay away from the crowds," said David Treadwell, executive director of the Central Union Mission shelter in Logan Circle.
The city's Interagency Council on Homelessness has been meeting for weeks about how to do this well. It created a brochure for outreach workers about how to help people find shelter safely. And it added a page for police officers from out of town, particularly those unaccustomed to dealing with such urban issues as homelessness.
"We are trying to work with the homeless, to get them to shelters and help them," said Sgt. Robert Lachance of the U.S. Park Police. "The Park Police has no plans to push anybody out."
The downtown Business Improvement District estimated this spring that 125 people are sleeping in the streets in the downtown area.
Free shuttle buses will run to shelters at St. Elizabeths Hospital and on New York Avenue. They will stop running Tuesday, when people will be urged to stay in the shelters, Wells said. "If any of those people want to come back into town for the events, there is nothing preventing them from taking a Metrobus back."
But many homeless people are not so mobile. They are the ones with mountains of stuff sometimes precariously tied to shopping carts, strollers and luggage carts.
The city will offer free storage to those who are hampered by their worldly possessions.
Until Saturday, city workers will help them place their possessions in a storage shed donated by the Office of Property Management, where the items will be locked up until the inauguration is over.
These are the people who remain in the greatest danger as the weather gets colder and the city is engulfed in the chaos of thousands of visitors, Treadwell said.
"This is the group I'm worried about: the people who live in the alleys and doorways of downtown Washington," he said. "They will be disrupted, and the little routine they've built up is often the key to their survival."
Such groups as the Salvation Army's Grate Patrol are a safety net.
The patrol delivers meals to people who sleep on the street rather than in shelters. Volunteers know them by name, where they sleep, what kind of blankets they have and how they are doing. Once the security perimeter goes up, the volunteers plan to find those people.
"I've been sitting there with maps and the Secret Service Web site, trying to figure out where all our people are going to go and how we can continue our meal program," said Leslie Wooley, who helps organize the Grate Patrol's meal deliveries.
The group might find a central location to distribute food. But that might change, too. It's all changing.
"The fact is, everyone is going to be terribly inconvenienced. The housed, the unhoused," Wells said, sighing after a brutal day of District traffic. "Already, getting around town is difficult."