District of Columbia welfare authorities have completed -- inconclusively -- a month-long experiment to see if more homeless "street people" could be attracted to city-run emergency night shelters by eliminating customary screening procedures and other bureaucratic formalities.
Nightly head count figures at two men's shelters and a women's shelter fluctuated between 170 and 251, although the nightly totals appeared to increase somewhat in the latter half of the period.
Department of Human Resources officials said this was at least in part a normal increase expected with the colder weather in January.
"I see no real change in the pattern," said John Sullivan, a DHR shelter program administrator.
But Mark Lee, a member of the Community for Creative Non-Violence that has been pushing DHR for reforms, said he believes the relaxed procedures have generated a "limited increase."
He said DHR still is not "reaching out" enough to find more indigents on the street, and many alienated, hard-core street people still perceive the shelters to be highly regimented and choose instead to remain outside, sleeping on heating grates and in abandoned buildings.
The novel experiment of relaxing screening procedures stemmed from demands by CCNV, the radical Christain group that recently led a nine-day takeover of the National Visitor Center, turning it into an impromptu night shelter for scores of itinerant street people.
The modification of rules worked out between CCNV and DHR director Albert Russo included elimination of mandatory showers and requirements that shelter users give a name or Social Security number.
Though these requirements have now been formally eliminated, DHR shelter workers say they have always been informally set aside in those few cases when street people refused to cooperate with processing.
"We've never turned anybody away because he refused to give his name," said Sullivan.
DHR operates two night shelters for men -- both vacant public school buildings, the Blair School at 6th and I streets NE and Pierce School at 14th and G streets NE -- plus a newly opened shelter for women at 458 C St. NW that is staffed by CCNV volunteers.
In each, rooms are set up barracks-style with army costs and blankets.
Shelter users normally surrender their clothes, take a shower, put on cloth or paper bathrobes, eat a hot meal, watch some television, and then go to bed. Users are assigned to specific cots and smoking is prohibited in the dormitory rooms because of possible fire hazards.
"You can call it regimented or paramilitary or whatever," says shelter program director Milton (Skeeter) Douglas, "but you've got to have some kind of order and flow when you're dealing with hundreds of people."
Because some users are also mentally disturbed or alcoholic, he said, some control is needed "for the protection of the other people." By the same token, he said, liquor bottles and possible weapons are intercepted when shelter users surrender their clothes for the showers. Those few who refuse to take showers are transferred to the privately run Gospel Mission, he said, where showers are not required.
DHR figures show that during the 30-day experimental period ending Jan. 15, the Blair shelter averaged 137 men a night and the Pierce shelter 70 men a night, but an average of only three women a night went to C Street.
It is difficult to say if formal announcement of relaxed screening procedures enticed more street people, DHR workers say, but most workers interviewed said they have seen few new faces among the scores of "regulars" who show up each night.
An ad hoc "oversight committee" established under a DHR-CCNV agreement to monitor the 30-day experimental program is schedued today to present a comprehensive plan for administering a citywide shelter program.