As one of the lesser tourist attractions in the capital, Jesse Carpenter endured on the scene as a mote. He was a homeless man, long disendowed and longer still an alcoholic. His visibility to tourists occurred because he had turned Lafayette Square across from the White House into his living quarters.
For years, Carpenter ate, slept and suffered there. People would leave the White House guided tours feeling uplifted about democracy and the decorative tastes of our first ladies, and then go to the park for some savoring. There they would be hit with the presence of the disheveled and wasted Carpenter.
He is not a problem anymore. On the subfreezing night of Dec. 7, Carpenter died of hypothermia.
His death was the unofficial season's opener for public attention to homelessness. Street people die year-round, but in wintertime, when citizens who are blessed with warm homes are more aware of those who are not, the deaths have a larger impact.
Action seems to be taken around this time of year. Last week, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Pew Memorial Trust announced a $25 million health-care program for the homeless. The money is to be spread around to 18 cities where shelter providers are already at work. It is estimated that one-fourth of the homeless are afflicted with acute medical problems. Most of the rest either have chronic problems or are disabled mentally or physically.
The response of the two foundations is generous. It had a touch of courage, too. Foundations like to see results from their largess. The grants can then be justified to those who said the money should have gone to safer projects with surer payoffs. Money to the destitute of the streets is about the most visibly resultless enterprise there is.
This is why governments -- federal, state and local -- have had to be sued, pressured and shamed before coming forward with even minimal funds for the homeless.
A pending suit in Washington shows poverty politics at its worst. The District of Columbia government is challenging a voter-approved initiative requiring the city to provide "adequate overnight shelter" to its homeless citizens. Nearly three-fourths of the voters said yes to the initiative on Nov. 6, despite the city government undemocratically spending tax money to tell the taxpayers to vote no.
Then and now, two unfounded arguments were strewn like litter over what should have been clean grounds for debate.
Washington, it was said, could become "a magnet" for the hordes of unwashed who hear about the new creature comforts in the city of federal handouts. The magnet specter was first popularized four years ago by alarmist officials in New York City when they were ordered by a court to obey the law and provide shelter for the homeless. Let's not get carried away, it was said, or New York could sink to a Calcutta.
An invasion of the homeless hasn't occurred in New York, nor will one in Washington or any other city. The New York Coalition for the Homeless, which had successfully sued the city four years ago to do what was morally right, investigated the magnet myth. It learned that in recent years some 50 politicians have claimed that their city or town would be descended on by the homeless once word spread that shelter was available.
"There is no evidence to support these claims," says Robert Hayes, the attorney who heads the coalition. "In New York City, for example, 97 percent of the homeless families have lived here for five years. For individual homeless, it is 80 percent. Those figures show that the homeless are less transient than others in New York, including professional people."
The other airy argument favored by politicians is the costliness of shelter. In the capital, officials are trying to frighten the public with the notion that $65 million would be needed to carry out the shelter initiative. The Community for Creative Non-Violence, which can smell fishy numbers, said the costs are astronomically lower. It is a group that ought to know, having been sheltering and feeding people for 10 years in a day-in-day-out way that no city government anywhere has. CCNV estimates that its own 800-bed shelter costs, with a volunteer staff, 40 cents a day per person.
That is low, a tribute to CCNV's efficiency. Other shelters around the country report daily costs of about $5. Those are bargain rates. Nationally, jail costs about $40 a day, hospitals between $300 and $400, and emergency-room visits $75. Those facilities are where many of the homeless end up when no shelters are available.
We should not get trapped in the economics of homelessness. So what if a shelter costs less than the hospital? The issue is debt, not cost. We owe citizens like Jesse Carpenter more -- much more -- than a park bench.