A high level Interior Department official said last night federal authorities have become "exasperated" with the week-long takeover of portions of the National Visitor Center by dozens of homeless "street people" and said the situation "cannot go on forever."
"We are getting fairly well exasperated and concerned," said Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior Richard R. Hite, citing increased incidents of fighting among street people and health reports of questionable food handling procedures and deposits of urine and feces on some floors.
Hite's comments to a reporter came as organizers of the street people continued to play out a bizarre, slow motion waiting game with Interior- each waiting for the other to signal a way to ending what has become a silent and almost invisible confrontation.
Each night since last Thursday, dozens of derelicts and street wanderers have slept sprawled under the high-ceilinged concourse of the center adjacent to Union Station in violation of the law.
As they did, an array of federal officials, U.S. Park Police and city welfare agency workers watched warily from the sidelines.
The street people have been sleeping and eating behind a large wooden partition that divides the concourse so that they are not visible at night to train passengers and other members of the public passing through the building.
During the day, however, increasing numbers of street people have filtered through the entire visitor center complex, panhandling for money, occasionally scuffling among themselves and drawing complaints from train passengers, Amtrak officials and visitor center employes.
Members of the Community for Creative Non-Violence, the radical Christian group that organized the takeover in a media campaign to dramatize the plight of the homeless, have vowed to stay until Christmas or at least until the city provides what they say is adequate space elsewhere. They also have demanded elimination of current screening and registration procedures for street people seeking overnight shelter from the cold at city-run emergency shelters.
For its part, the Interior Department, which has responsibility for the visitor center, decided from the outset to avoid any embarrassing confrontation such as mass arrests or a building for an unspecified "temporary" period while officials negotiate a permanent solution.
Albert Russo, director of the D.C. Department of Human Resources, has refused to eliminate shelter use- a key CCNV condition for leaving the visitor center- but it is understood that officials in mayor-elect Marion Barry's transition office approached by Interior are considering such an elimination when the Barry administration is installed next month.
Russo and other DHR officials contend screening and registration are necessary for the safety of emergency shelter tenants and to curb abuses by persons with permanent homes and income.
Mitch Snyder, a principal figure in the CCNV takeover, says the rules must be eliminated because there is a large but undetermined number of alienated hard core street people- many of them chronic alcoholics and emotionally impaired persons- who "don't trust the system" and refuse to come to city-run shelters because of "the controls and regimentation."
Some of those now are coming to the visitor center, where there is no screening procedure, Snyder said. "They'd be out sleeping on a heating grate somewhere if it wasn't for the center," he said.
The number of people using the center has grown steadily from fewer than 100 the first night last week to 156 Tuesday night, Snyder said.
DHR observers at scene say the total never has exceeded 100. Also, they say, some users of the CCNV shelter are known welfare recipients and other persons with regular incomes.
Occasional minor fights have erupted among people in the visitor center, and DHR workers on the scene have expressed dismay that street people can enter the center unchallenged while carrying liquor bottles and possibly weapons.
In contrast, at the DHR operated Blair Emergency Shelter for Men a few blocks away at 611 1 St. NE, men line up each evening to be processed. They disrobe, shower, wash themselves with disinfectant and put on DHR-issued slippers, pajamas and robes. Their clothes are sprayed with disinfectant and placed in plastic bags with their names for the night.
"This way, they get clean and at the same time we intercept any bottles or weapons they might have," said Blair administrative officer Al Harvey. The men then eat a hot meal and sleep on canvas cots withblankets set up barrack style in the building. Several security guards, paramedics and welfare counselors are on hand.
The Blair shelter has a normal capacity of 150 beds, but "we can take up to 250 in a crunch," says DHR official Milton C. (Skeeter) Douglas, Heestimated DHR has a citywide "capability" of 800 beds, on short notice. Snyder contends only about 450 beds-an inadequate number-are readily available.
Harvey and other DHR officials acknowledge that some Blair shelter "regulars" have been going recently to the visitor center. "Some of them just don't like having to take a shower or give up their liquor bottle," he said. Others have been told that the Blair shelter closed when the visitor center opened, DHR officials said. Snyder denied any CCNV members told street people the Blair shelter was closed.