Ever since she started to working the midnight-to-8 shift at D.C. General Hospital a few months ago, just coming home from work has made Annie Merriwether disgusted.
"In the last eight or nine months, it's about nine of them out there, and they just sit and raise hell. They're just lying all out there, cussing and half naked. I just don't see paying all these real estate taxes and have to be harassed by these people. Look, you can see them out there now," she said, pointing across the short distance from her porch to the street.
And there they were: a group of five men, all showing outward signs of intoxication -- swaying, yelling and drinking at 10:30 a.m. last Wednesday. As Merriwether and a reporter watched, the men spent 10 minutes noisily crushing a mound of beer cans. Three of them then linked arms and sashayed into the nearby alley to urinate, one by one.
Although the scene is common in some city neighborhoods, these vagrants have so annoyed the people who live in the 900 block of Hamilton Street NW that residents have petitioned the mayor, the chief of police and their City Council representative, and have formed a block association -- all in an effort to force the men to move. From 8 in the morning until very late at night, neighbors say, the vagrants gather at one of two entrances to the Hamilton Hardware Store, where they drink, fight and sleep the day away. Not only are they unsightly, say the residents of this otherwise quiet Brightwood Park neighborhood, but they discourage visitors, drive away customers from the hardware store, and frighten the children.
"You can't have company because of it. . . . I have not even opened my side windows the whole summer because of it. You can't even sit on the porch," said an indignant Norma Atkins, who loves at 929 Hamilton, next to the alley where the derelicts often meet. "The rats are running -- great big rats.You can't leave the basement door open, and I really think it's because they leave the trash out there," she said, her voice rising angrily. "I've even thought of moving."
Dennis Crawford, owner of Hamilton Hardware at 5201 Georgia Ave. where the vagrants gather, said, "They do affect the business -- I know it just from customer complaints. People ask me 'why don't you get them off the corner?' I've been trying to do something about it for eight years. Sure the police run 'em off, but they know the police schedule better than I do.
"But the thing that makes me hot," Crawford added, "is, I don't own the property [the alley behind the store] but I have to clean up their trash anywhere surrounding my property. I can't get them out, but I have to clean up," he said.
The other Hamilton Street businessman, Nathan Blitzstein, who owns Hamilton Liquor at 5205 Georgia Ave., expressed a slightly different view. Blitzstein, who does not live in the neighborhood, has been asked either to stop selling liquor to the derelicts or to clean up the litter they leave, but he has refused.
"As long as they're old enough and they're not drunk, I can't say I can't sell to them. If he's got the money, I got to sell," said Blitzstein, who estimated that each of the men buys two or three bottles of liquor a day. "I don't clean [the alley] because it's not my property. I don't invite them there, but they don't bother me."
Neighbors acknowledge that the derelicts have congregated at the corner for several years, particularly two old men uniformly described as "the regulars." As of the last several months, however, the neighbors say the crowd has grown larger, younger and rowdier than ever. Sometimes the group gets so large that customers, especially women, are afraid to enter the hardware store. l
"If there are too many of them sitting out there, rather than park my car and get out and walk past, I say, well, not today, and I continue north on Georgia Avenue," said Bronna Casey who, as a saleswomen for a paint store company, visits the store regularly. "They probably won't hurt me but they make me nervous," she said.
"Sometimes it's only three of 'em that are bums and the rest will just come by and sit with them," said Crawford. "But if you get three or four with one or two of them really stinking, it looks like 10 . . . then there's the occasional one that comes by and is a problem."
"It's embarrassing when I bring friends home," said Anne Merriwether, Annie Merriwether's 22-year-old daughter, a student at Howard. The cursing and all -- everybody can hear it. It's disrespectful."
"Besides," added Crawford, "another problem is they're prey for neighborhood kids who'll pick on 'em every month. I've even done so much as to take one guy's check and dole it out to him $10 to $15 at a time. They attract bad company. But no matter how bad he looks, he shouldn't get treated that way."
On July 23, several of the residents circulated petitions, which 51 Hamilton Street neighbors signed. Copies of the petition went to the mayor, Chief of Police Burtell Jefferson and Charlene Drew Jarvis, City Council representative for Ward 4. Jarvis said she thought the alley had been cleaned and that there was no longer a problem.
Norma Atkins received a reply from the mayor's office, dated July 31, informing her that her letter had been forwarded to William B. Johnson, acting director of the D.C. Department of Environmental Services. A letter from Johnson dated Aug. 6 told Atkins that a crew from the solid waste division had cleaned the alley behind her house on Aug. 1, and that a "senior supervisor" had been assigned to inspect the alley regularly.
"If he has [been assigned], he hasn't come," remarked Atkins. "You can look at that alley now and see that nothing's been done."
A final response came from Burtell Jefferson's office on Aug. 25, assuring Atkins and her neighbors that Deputy Chief Charles Troublefield, commander of the 4th District, "will take action whenever violations of the law occur."
And that, say police, is most of the problem. "There is no such thing as loitering in the District and there is no such thing as vagrancy," said 4th District Officer Charles Bartlett. "You cannot arrest a man for being drunk. The officer can only arrest them [the vagrants] if he observes them drinking in public or urinating in public or being disorderly. It was found to be a violation of their constitutional rights," he said, referring to a 1968 Supreme Court decision that struck down the District's vagrancy law.
The latest correspondence to the neighborhood from the police indicated that Blitzstein had been directed to clean up the alley behind his store. "But you see, they keep talking about that alley.They don't say anything about those bums, and they are the problem," said Atkins.
So neighbors have vowed to continue petitioning the city until the men are removed. "We have to think of our children," said Gloria Morrison, a petition drafter who lives at 925 Hamilton. Morrison said she became involved after her 14-year-old daughter, the youngest of her five children, saw a derelict expose himself. "It used to be just winos, and now it's younger ones and they seem to be dealing with more than just wine. The winos don't bother you but the drug people, you don't know what they'd do. I don't want my daughter to see that," she said.
As for the men on the corner, each had his own reaction to the neighbor's complaints, and none was eager to move.
"Move?" demanded one who identified himself as Johnny Love. "Why should I move? It's none of your business," he said.
"I'm supposed to sit here," said another man, who said his name was Joe "make it Joseph" Jones. "They must be complaining about some other accumulation."
A man who called himself Bill Brooks didn't altogether rule out moving. "If it [the request] came from the proper source I would move," he said. He said he did not know who the proper source would be. "I would like to meet Charlene Drew Jarvis," he added.