"I been to that public shelter one time, and I swear I ain't never going back," says Parish, veteran itinerant among Washington's "street people,' as he squats, wreathed in steam on a heating grate by the Corcoran Gallery of Art at 17th Street and New York Avenue NW.
"It's like a jail -- 'do this, do that, take off your clothes, take a shower,'" he says, mimicking a drill sergeant.
Yeah, like a God-damned jail," echoes Parish's grate mate, Tommy, a large, red-faced man who seems rooted to the heavy metal grill as he sweats in the nighttime steam.
"I won't go to Blair (the Blair School shelter at 6th and I streets NE) because they got lice as big as I am," says a tall, thin man in a ragged jogging suit. He is lying on a grate next to the Commerce Department building on 15th Street, and steam swirls errily around him into the night.
Blair's admissions procedure includes delousing of persons who appear to have lice.
The reasons are many -- the food, the geographical invonvenience, the regimentation, the sense of being watched -- but the message is clear: While hundreds of Washington's homeless street wanderers regularly use the three D.C. government-run emergency night shelters, there appears to be an irreducible and almost impenetrable core of street people so deeply alienated that they may never accept official assistance.
There are the chronic alcoholics, the emotionally deranged, the severaly paranoid "rejects" of society -- people who have been "so degraded, so abused, so ignored, so burned out that they no longer trust anything and have turned inwardly on themselves," says Mitch Snyder, leader of a faction of the Community for Creative Non-Violence that has been pushing the city to relax screening prodcedures and other bureaucratic formalities at its shelters.
These are the people whom motorists see fleetingly in the shadows as they drive by the heating grates on Constitution Avenue or 21st Street near the State Department or Indiana Avenue in front of D.C. police headquarters.
Their voices are often incoherent, thick with liquor. Some do not speak at all but simply stare or draw a blanket or coat over their faces when a stranger approaches.
Ronny, a square-faced man with a crew cut and three days' growth of beard, crouches by himself over a grate surrounded by bushes next to the U.S. Court of Military Appeals downtown.
"People won't go to the shelters because they're afraid of the police," he says. "The police come in those places looking for people."
In addition to the psychologically alienated street people, there are those who have an economic stake, small thought it may be, in remaining on the street and independent of the city shelter system.
At the Farmers Market at 5th Street and Florida Avenue NE, small groups of men crowd around makeshift fires and sleep under produce sheds, waiting to help unload trucks as they arrive during the night.
"Can't leave here and go to the (city-run shelters)," one man says, warming his hands over a fire of tree limbs and construction wood in an open oil drum. "Might miss one of the trucks.... Might miss the money."