Occupation of the National Visitor Center by dozens of uninvited "street people" stretched into its fifth night last night with federal officials growing quietly impatient with what they say is a deteriorating situation.
Part of the area occupied by the street people in a partitioned segment of the high-ceilinged main gallery adjacent to Union Station have become soiled. Occasional scuffling erupts among the street people. The smell of alcohol and urine periodically drifts through the air despite a thorough cleanup each day by volunteer workers.
Interior Department officials who have responsibility for the cavernous and otherwise almost empty building are under increasing pressure to oust the street people, but at the same time want to avoid what could be an embarrassing confrontation with them.
Authorities at the scene yesterday said they are still taking an official "wait-and-see" attitude in hopes the group will leave of its own accord.
Members of the Community for Creative Non-Violence, the radical Christian group that organized the street people's action, say they plan to stay until the city provides what they say is adequate and acceptable space elsewhere for homeless street people.
CCNV announced plans some weeks ago to move hundreds of street people - with or without the consent of the Interior Department into the largely vacant Visitor Center as an emergency night shelter during the winter.
Negotiations initiated thereafter by high Interior officials led to a tacit agreement permitting the street people to sleep in the center for an unspecified temporary period. Interior said publicly it views the action as technically unlawful but as a humanitarian gesture would not lock the building or arrest the street people immediately while an alternative site was sought.
CCNV said it deliberately selected the Visitor Center as a target in a media campaign to dramatize the plight of homeless street people, many of them chronic alcoholics and emotionally disturbed persons.
The D.C. Department of Human Resources, nudged by Interior officials, has been telling those at the Visitor Center they may go to city-sponsored emergency shelters instead. It is difficult to tell what success the department has had. Numbers at the Visitor Center have fluctuated unevenly from 50 to about 80 per night, according to DHR, and from 85 to 122 according to CCNV.
DHR says it can make more than 800 beds available throughovt the city and can easily accommodate those currently staying at the Visitor Center. Mitch Snyder. a CCNV member who has emerged as a chief spokesman for the Visitor Center action, says however, that many "alienated" hardcore street people will not use city shelters because of requirements that they give their names, and submit to other "controls."
DHR officials say some controls are necessary for the safety of the people using the emergency shelters. Shelter users, are required, for example, take showers and to trade in their clothes for pajamas for the night, giving authorities a chance to remove any weapons or alcohol the people may have.
No such requirements are imposed by CCNV at the Visitor Center. Despite a few minor disruptions, Snyder said, the atmosphere has been 'basically very peaceful."