Under the gracefully vaulted ceilings of the National Visitor Center, about 80 rumpled and homeless "street people" slept peacefully Thursday night their blankets rolled out where President Carter once danced at his inaugural ball. That night the atmosphere soured somewhat. Only about 50 people showed up, and some minor scuffling broke cut. One man, in a rage, grabbed a fire extinguisher and smashed two windows in a door at the main entrance. He was arrested by police.
The odor of cold meat and potatoes lingered in the air over an impromptu chow line set up earlier for the street people in the main gallery of the mammoth edifice, recently refurbished along with the adjacent Union Station at a cost of $46 million.
The center has become, at least temporarily, a haven for the poor and homeless.
The unprecedented arrangement, reached by high level Interior Department officials this week to head off a confrontation with radical organizers vowing to bring street people to the center whether permitted or not, has triggered fierce internal debates in the government and some public criticism.
Has the visitor center become a disgraceful and inappropriate flophouse or simply a vast empty building put to humane use?
"To bring street people in there is counterproductive," said Ross Capon, executive of the 7,000member National Association of Railroad Passengers. "The visitor center is not the place to do it. That is the responsibility of other people"
Capon and other supporters of Union Station expressed concern that indigents and panhandlers could create a nuisance for passengers passing through the visitor center on the way to the adjacent station. Amtrak reportedly has conveyed a similar "concern" to the National Park Service, which has responsibility for the center.
In contrast, members of the Community for Creative Non-Violence, the radical Christian group that organized the street people's occupancy of the center, contend that the enormous and largly unused visitor center is a logical emergency night shelter.
"Every human being is entitled to a warm place to sleep," says CCNV member Mitch Snyder. "It is absurd for large, heated, well-lit public buildings like the visitor center that are not used at night to be left empty when people are freezing and dying outside."
He said harassment of train passengers should be minimal. Besides, he noted, the street people are staying in an area in the east end of the center's main gallery that has been partitioned off from the concourse to Union Station and are thus "invisible" to the general public.
Much of the visitor center operation has been closed recently because of a $2.3 million budget reduction after congressional criticism that the center is an underused white elephant.
CCNV several weeks ago announced its intention to assemble a large but undetermined number of street people to "move into" the visitor center as part of a media campaign to dramatize the plight of the homeless on Washington's streets.
High level Interior Department officials, including Deputy Assistant Secretary Richard Hite, met with CCNV organizers and at first said they would not open the center. CCNV said it was coming anyway.
With Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus being kept informed of developments, officials finally worked out a delicate and tacit agreement permitting street people to use the center for an undetermined but "very temporary" period until city welfare agencies find alternative sites. It was understood that the arrangement permits the street people to remain there at least through this weekend.
Snyder of CCNV has said, however, that the people will stay until either the government or private charity groups provide shelters that are not only adequate but where "regimentation, controls, and requirements that people give their names,"
He said there is a hard core of alienated street people -- many of them chronic alcoholics and emotionally impaired persons -- who "do not trust the system" and will not use government shelters where such requirements are now imposed.
People using the CCNV "shelter" at the visitor center have been allowed to enter without being questioned. They are expected to arrive generally after 9 p.m. and leave about 7:30 a.m. the next day, thus occupying the area when the center is largely unused by the public.
CCNV is providing the shelter and food program on a volunteer basis at. little cost to government. Interior officials said yesterday that the area appeared to have been kept clean. CCNV workers said they plan to disinfect sleeping mats and blankets today.
D.C. Department of Human Resources officials have been trying to encourage street people at the center to go to conventional DHR shelters. Some DHR ovservers say several socalled street people using the center in fact are known welfare recipients with permanent homes but who were attracted to the center because of the promise of free food.
DHR director Albert Russo says he will not eliminate the "screening process" currently used at DHR shelters to determine legitimately homeless people.
"We are responsible for the expenditure of public funds," he said, "and we must make some attempt to assure that people are not abusing this program."