As the weather warms, so, too, does the years-old issue of what to do about Washington's street people.
Should they be allowed to sleep in parks and on top of grates?
Should the city spend precious money to open shelters, even if the street people might not use them?
Should street people be arrested for littering?
Can private citizens and organizations do anything to defuse the problem?
Nowhere do these questions touch off a more vocal debate than around the State Department.
Along Virginia Avenue NW, just north of State's main building, about a dozen street people spend each night sleeping on benches and grates. Police and city officials say they have received more complaints about this group (they're known as The Dirty Dozen) than about all the other street people in the city put together.
According to several employes at State who have called me about the situation in recent weeks, the men regularly leave orange peels, broken whiskey bottles, crumpled newspapers and filthy cardboard mats scattered all over the sidewalk and the lawns.
They urinate wherever and whenever they please. They panhandle constantly. They regularly shout verbal abuse at passing motorists -- some of whom are ambassadors heading to State on official business.
State Department people are used to going through channels, and many of my callers say they have done just that. But the road leads up a series of dead ends.
The police say it isn't their problem. The National Park Service says it isn't their jurisdiction. The city's trash collectors say they can't pick up every orange peel. The mayor's office says shelters already exist, and all they can do is lead these horses to water and hope they drink. But no man can be forced to sleep inside a converted school if he doesn't want to, the mayor's staff points out.
Like many of my callers, I don't think arrests are the answer. A night in jail won't convince a street person to find a job and rent an apartment. Nor are more shelters a solution. Street people are deeply wary of governments. A lot of the shelter space now available goes begging.
I'd like to direct a nudge at Metro. Why not allow street people to sleep in subway stations between midnight and 6 a.m.?
No trains run between those hours, so no one would be bothered. The only condition would be that sleepers use the garbage cans -- and the bathrooms. If they didn't, the deal would -- and should -- go up in smoke.
Worth a try, I say. The results can hardly be worse than those around the State Department today.