Have you seen the old gal
Walking through the streets of London
Hair all dirty, and dressed all in rags
Has no time for talking, she just keeps right on walking
Carrying her home in two brown paper bags . . .
Old song, composer unknown
The "shopping bag ladies," the men sleeping in doorways or under newspapers in the park, the hoboes, the loners who talk to themselves in crowds, or the seemingly quiet ones who suddenly start yelling in the midst of a startled group of people waiting at a corner for a "walk" light.
Many of these belong to that wildly varying group of area people who are homeless. During the day, they roam the streets and buildings of Washington. But, now that it is cold, where do they go at night?
Because there is no city government shelter for those without a home for more than a few days at a time, the churches bear most of the burden of care for the hundreds of people often thought of as society's "down and outs."
For nealy a century, two partly church-supported missions - big buildings with rows of beds on upper floors, a chapel and kitchen below - have housed homeless men here.
One, the Gospel Mission, a battered old building at 810 5th St. NW, asks a $2 contribution from men who can give it. Most do. Many local churches give money and conduct the nightly services in turn, most of them Baptist. But the mission's financial plight is shaky enough to "force" it to receive "about a quarter" of last year's $150,000 budget from the city's Department of Human Resources, according to its director, the Rev. Claude Baumgardner.
In an interview, Baumgardner said he would rather not have to charge the men and would not like to be in the position of "being the only institution in town regularly taking DHR (homeless transients) referrals."
"Technically, they (DHR) should not send people to a religious organization because it's forcing them to be exposed to religion. But they have no choice," he added.
"I would like all the money to come from the churches . . . We do the social work in order that we might reach people spiritually.I would like to do this in the name of the Lord, not in the name of the DHR," he said.
About five blocks away, the Rev. Thomas Hanlon, at the Central Union Mission, 624 Indiana Ave. NW, appears to be in the position Baumgardner "plans" to be in.
Though older than the Gospel Mission, Central Union Mission is bright and well kept for its 93 years, with clean walls, a clean smell, and patterned bedsheets that break up the feeling of austerity in the rows of beds. Its "clients" pay no money. Its $250,000 budget last year came from church and individual contributions and investment income. Because he is independent of government money, Hanlon can be forthright about requiring those who stay at the mission to attend daily chapel.
In winter, the missions' combined 200 beds are taken by 7 p.m., leaving the rest of the homeless men to keep moving. They hide from guards in 24-hour office buildings, get their clothes wet when they camp on steamy boiler-plant grates, or freeze, as an estimated seven did last year. Sometimes in warmer months, the missions have empty beds.
There has been no such place for women. Recently, a city caseworker said that when she is asked to help a chronically homeless woman, "I let them know which office buildings are open all night, which hallways they can sleep in without being hassled."
The situation prompted a coalition of the Community for Creative Non-Violence and the Sojourners, two Christian activist communities that operate along 14th Street NW, to write 1,100 area churches for help or space in a project to take in the homeless each year from November through March.
Many responded with food, blankets and volunteers. Two opened their doors.
A men's shelter at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Church, 16th and Newton Streets NW, opened in late November with 13 men residents and is now over capacity with about 70. A women's shelter in Luther Place Memorial Church, 14th and N Streets NW, opened a week earlier with two residents and quickly grew to a population of nearly 30 women.
The young activists do most of the work preparing two huge pots of food, such as macaroni and cheese, each day, and making the rounds of grocery stores and churches for handouts.
They also teach volunteers from area churches the many daily tasks involved, such as how to lay the plastic-covered foam mats in the St. Stephen's cafeteria or Luther Place chapel by 9 o'clock each night.
The mats are taken up and wiped down in the morning. The churches must be vacated by 8 a.m. every day to make way for other church programs.
Both the mission staff and the people who run the two church basement shelters are concerned about what to do with the homeless during the day. They have very different ideas about "rehabilitation."
The two shelter groups are hoping to make friends with the "street" people. The Jewish community is hosting a Christmas for them all day Sunday at Luther Place. The congregation at St. Stephen's will mingle with its night guests for the first time on Monday evening, St. Stephen's Day, at a song and worship party.
Baumgardner of the Gospel Mission told a reporter that he was converted to Christianity while in a similar "rescue" mission in 1941 during a period of heavy drinking. He feels the church groups "may not realize what they are getting into. It's great to be humanitarian, and these men are very human. I know of one who sleeps on the street who has killed four men. He threatened to kill me, too."
Both Baumgardner and Hanlon at Central Union Mission (also a mission convert) admit to a double standard of treatment for the men who stay at their respective missions.
Each one maintains a core group of 20 to 30 men who claim to have been "saved." They live in separate dormitories at the Gospel Mission and have "special meals" at the Central Union Mission.
In addition to the daily chapel tht all mission folks attend, they go to daily Bible classes. Some of them wear newer looking clothes than the others, and often function as mission "staff," guarding doors and mopping up.
Both mission heads defend this by saying "Christ is the only way" to "rehabilitate" their people, many of whom are alcoholics. They point to other staff and "alumni" who have jobs and "lead Christian lives." In the last year alone, Baumgardner says he has helped 25 such people, Hanlon, 13.
Mitch Synder, who drives a van route to alleyways and heat grates nearly every night, offering rides to St. Stephen's or Luther Place, says the missions "infuriate" him. The other 14th Street Christian activists who work on the shelter project say much the same thing.
"You must treat these people with dignity. You can't force religion down someone's throat and expect a miracle. These people need to be given friendship, respect," he said.
The Rev. John Steinbruck, who lends his help and Luther Place Church to the groups running shelters, and also is involved in joint projects with other downtown clergymen, finds himself in the middle. When he heard a reporter was working on a story about the homeless, he sent a note that read in part:
"Hope you don't come down too hard on those who historically have concerned themselves for the homeless though in a super-religious' way.
"For one thing, they have been and are rehabilitation oriented. An item many of us . . . 'Johnny-come-latelys' overlook in our anxiety to do good . . . they are in it to stay, often for life-times. Few of us have those creditionals."