Some people in this town would be happy to drop-kick Carol Fennelly right over the District line. Put her on a one-way Greyhound bound for Youngstown, Ohio, with a worn-out satchel, a Tom Waits tape and bottle full of rain. She's been an agitator for the homeless and the hopeless for more than two decades here--long enough to become an annoyance, a shopworn sound bite, a God-talks-to-me zealot pushing a cause that's fallen out of fashion.
Her friends admit as much. It's why they love her.
Last night they gathered in the ornate Mansion on O Street to bid Fennelly farewell and mark the passing of her era. She's moving to Ohio to take up another cause, aiding the families of prisoners.
"There's a place for people who can get in your face," said Cliff Newman, a veteran of early-'80s hunger strikes with Fennelly and the Community for Creative Non-Violence, founded by her lover, the late Mitch Snyder. "Battles get ugly. It's not all nice and polite."
Today Newman--who once fasted with Snyder for 51 days--weighs more than he cares to admit for publication ("I've gained a lot"), wears suspenders and is battling to establish a company on the Internet. Like other ex-radicals, he's grayer and mellower and willing to turn the agenda over to younger activists. The anti-poverty movement needs a new face, some say, and a less indulgent approach.
Forget pity; put the homeless to work; let's see results. That, said Robert Egger, director of the D.C. Central Kitchen, is the '90s way.
"Carol would be the first to acknowledge it's time for a new generation to come along," said Egger, who hosted the fete, which also marked Fennelly's 50th birthday. "There's a sense of time passing. This party represents a certain closing of a chapter."
Has Fennelly worn out her welcome?
"I have to say I didn't have any trouble underwriting the party, so maybe people were glad to see me go," she said with a laugh. "I can be a pit bull when I have to."
"She redefined the word 'persuade,' no doubt about it. She could be a thorn in your side," said Art Schultz, a Georgetown PR executive who's been involved in "this homeless stuff" for 20 years. "Yes, there are some people who are happy she is leaving town."
He was one of the few suits in the crowd of 100, which seemed to favor shorts, T-shirts and sack dresses. It was a crazy-quilt collection of do-gooders, reflecting the eccentric decor of the house. A Mother Teresa with yuppie tastes, Fennelly also held her daughter's wedding at the mansion. "I've always enjoyed ironies," she confessed.
Last night there was a congressman: Tony Hall (D-Ohio), who once fasted for 22 days to draw attention to the hunger issue. An ex-Redskin: George Starke, a Christmastime regular at the Washington homeless shelter named for Snyder. A ponytailed radical priest: Frank Cordaro, who said by way of introduction, "I was one of the folks who beat up a B-52 bomber."
There was bluesy jazz by a band that includes saxophonist George Holloway, a former member of Root Boy Slim's Sex Change Band. And there was David Gergen, who made a brief appearance worthy of a man who looks like a vice president, and said nice things about Fennelly.
"I don't always share her politics," the former presidential adviser told the gathering, "but I have an enormous appreciation for the way she stirred the conscience of the community. . . . There's an enormous void left here in Washington." Gergen once spent a night observing the shelter's operation, and came away impressed that it "gave people a strong floor in life."
Thanks to Snyder and Fennelly's work, it's a better time to be homeless than ever. Some benefits of the bull market seem to have truly trickled down, according to local activists. Services are far more coordinated, they say. The shelters and transitional programs are there. The adult homeless street population is down more than 50 percent since 1992, said Steve Cleghorn, deputy director of the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness.
But they're still out there, especially destitute families, who tend to be called the hidden homeless. "I think people are jaded now," said Sczerina Perot, one of the younger activists, a staff attorney for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. "Poverty still exists. The gap is widening."
As usual, Fennelly was working the media, saying the battle isn't over, that the welfare rolls should never have been cut. And defending herself against any suggestion that people were alienated by her laser-like commitment and quasi-mystic talk of God anointing her to do this or that, of being "called" to open Hope House, a sort of Ronald McDonald house for the families of Lorton prisoners relocated to Youngstown.
"That's not true," she said. "Aren't I charming?"
Well, yes. In a conscience-pricking kind of way. The kind of way that gets to your soul, like when Tom Waits, another saint of the broken-down, shiftless and drunk, sings on his new album, "All your cryin' don't do no good. . . . Come down off the cross, we can use the wood."
Once again, this time in Ohio, Fennelly is going to build something good.
CAPTION: Carol Fennelly dances with Frank Cordaro--radical priest and old friend--at her party.