The two-paragraph news items tell a poignant tale of city life in winter: two homeless people freeze to death on the streets of Washington -- then two more, then four more -- eight in all since Nov. 18. At the city's nighttime shelters, filled to near-capacity this week, the destitute seek relief from the freezing temperatures. At the District Building, meanwhile, angry community activists splash "blood" onto the walls while demanding more shelter space for the homeless.
Unnoticed in the flurry of stories chronicling the fate of the street people is the work of a dedicated but amorphous army of government workers, church volunteers and community organizers trying to help the poorest of the city's poor find food, clothes, jobs, benefits or simply a bed each night. Although the quality of their services varies widely and the sponsors are sharply ciritcal of one another's efforts, they provide a patchwork of lifesaving assistance for the city's estimated 1,000 homeless families, drifters and bag ladies.
"This is one of the most organized (relief) efforts," said Elizabeth Farrell, a full-time project coordinator for Lutheran Social Services. An assiduous volunteer, Farrell wrote a master's thesis on care for homeless women. "It's a small group (of workers) here (in D.C.), we all know each other," she said. "You could say that behind all of these shelters and soup lines you see there are some really tired people holding things together."
Although some community groups have complained bitterly of a lack of shelter facilities for street people, the District has about 700 beds available. By contrast, the city of Boston, with a similar size population, has only one large, overcrowded shelter with space for about 200 destitute men. It is privately run. Boston, according to the mayor's office, has no city-run facilities for destitute men or women or for battered wives.
Although Washington has a wealth of groups with good intentions, the issue of care for D.C.'s homeless is rife with emotional conflict, among groups with vastly divergent philosophies of social responsibility. While many government workers and church groups see their goal as rehabilitation of the street people, particularly alcoholics, other community activists reject those efforts as intrusive and alienating.
Social activists do agree that the street people are a diverse group, comprising the mentally ill, alcoholics, frustrated job seekers, runaways, former mental-hospital patients, and persons whose lives have been interupted by family disputes, eviction or loss of jobs. "You have older men who never had time in social security or unemployment, or people who've always taken secondary-labor jobs and never had stable employment," Farrell said.
There are about 15 emergency shelters in Washington for homeless adults, some of which accommodate mothers with children. The women's shelters are almost always full, administrators said. The men's shelters usually have space available, according to officials. The women's shelters also tend to offer more counseling. "Out objective is to help them find housing. If we did nothing, we would always be full," said Veronica Maz, founder of the House of Ruth.
The District also has four drop-in centers, which provide free hot meals, canned food and clothing. Four of the shelters -- the former Blair and Pierce schools in Northeast, Emergency Family Shelter 1 on Northwest P Street, and the Parkside Hotel on Northwest I Street -- are operated by the city.
The District spends about $5 per day per person to house as many as 275 destitute men at Blair and Pierce, according to Blair's administrative assistant Carl Clark. The shelters are open only between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. Hot dinners are served at both places. The P Street family shelter has room for about 10 families, but Parkside, with space for about 250 persons has been relocating its residents to permit needed "repairs," according to city officials.
The remaining 11 shelters are funded by church groups or by the city government and private donations. Two shelters, the Gospel Mission at 810 Fifth St. NW and Central Union Mission at 613 C St. NW, have been havens for as many as 160 homeless men for nearly a century. Both serve breakfast and dinner and hold nightly prayer services. City funds provide about one-quarter of their budgets, and the remainder of their funds come from church groups.
The five-year-old Houst of Ruth, and My Sister's Place, a two-year-old home, shelter 128 abused, transient or destitute women. The city sponsors 65 beds for transient women at the House of Ruth branch in the old Madison School building, at 651 10th St. NE, at a cost of about $10 per woman per day. As of Jan. 1, the city assumed 40 percent of the budget of My Sister's Place, a facility that provides 18 beds, meals and counseling services for battered women and their children. Its location is kept secret for the protection of residents.
The remaining homes, including the month-old Mount Carmel House, the Northeast Mission, House of Imogene and the Salvation Army, house from eight to 45 homeless men or women, for periods ranging from a few days to several years. The four drop-in centers, three run by a coalition of church groups and one by the Community For Creative Non-Violence, provide clothing and canned goods for anyone who asks.
Social workers tend to agree that, in addition to the approximately 600 persons who regularly bed down in the shelters, there are perhaps several hundered more who refuse housing even in winter, preferring to live on the heating grates of federal buildings. They bring the total homeless population to "upwards of a thousand," said Elizabeth Farrell, "although the 'upwards' is anyone's guess."
Controversy has raged for years about how to best help the street people. "We can only do two things for a man -- give him back some decency and his self-respect -- and you can't do that by condoning the conditions he's been living in. It's hard to feel self-respect when you haven't had a bath since Noah was a pup," insisted John Sullivan, a 54-year-old social worker at the Blair and Pierce shelters. A foster father to 47 children during a 20-year period. Sullivan grew up in Northeast in a fatherless family of 10. He attended the same Blair School that he now oversees as a shelter, and he regards his mission as one of uplift.
"I look at people as if they were my daddy or my brother, and I wouldn't want him to be living like that. I was told when I came down here that I was to help the man, not baby-sit them," he said.
Part of the mission of helping, Sullivan believes, includes the enforcement of city requirements for admission to Pierce and Balir: the men must take showers; turn in their clothing so that weapons or liquor can be confiscated, and the clothing disinfected; and give a name, and if possible, a social security number or other identification. "I like the idea of giving the social security number so that if anything happens to the guys you can find their next of kin," Sullivan said.
But the Community For Creative Non-Violence, a 10-year-old radical Christian group that has been widely publicized for their confrontation tactics, insists that the requirements of government-run facilities put street people off. "It's an oppressive situation, so oppressive that people won't go there," said CCNV member Mary Ellen Hombs. "One of the people who froze to death died right down the street from Pierce."
This week four CCNV members were arrested for splashing what they said was blood on the walls of the District Building in a demand for more shelter space.
For years the CCNV has demanded that the District provide more shelter space in every part of the city, insisting that there are thousands more homeless living in the streets than the city recognizes. They also want shelter regulations suspended. In February 1979, they staffed Pierce and established their own rules, but abandoned the experiment and the building after a month, citing the city's lack of cooperation in supplying food and cleaning materials. They say that they significantly increased attendance, although a similar city-run experiment a month earlier showed inconclusive results.
"You can't go from the perspective that they want to be out there," Hombs said emphatically. "You can't really perceive the need until you throw open the doors. We need at least a couple of places in every quadrant of the city. tThere's nothing in Southeast, nothing in Adams-Morgan or upper Northwest. You need massive outreach -- not a van driving around at night but two dozen vans. Not staffed with city people but people who know how to sit down and talk to people. Then you need clothing, laundry facilities and shower facilities. You shouldn't have four men standing under a faucet -- that's horrifying, especially to an older man. It's procedurally like jail."
After the most recent exposure-related deaths a week and a half ago, the mayor promised to open more buildings in response to CCNV demands. On Monday, Department of Human Resources official Bruce Glover presented CCNV with a proposal to open one building at 451 Indiana Ave. NW, which CCNV would staff, but only to take the overflow if existing shelters were full.
Glover said that more space was unnecessary, since neither city-run shelter has been full at any time during the winter.
"If we have people out here who have no place to go, then we have a responsibility to make places available. We don't want anybody dying in the street, but we cannot be responsible for each and every person out here who might decide to get intoxicated and fall down in the street. It's ludicrous," said Glover, who oversees operation of the city-run shelters. He was referring to a D.C. medical examiner's report, completed Monday afternoon, which said that of eight street people who had died of exposure-related causes in recent weeks, six had alcohol in their bodies.
Meanwhile, other social activists nurture their own private dreams for improvements in care. Farrell and Sullivan would like to establish large, inexpensive apartment buildings for transients on low or fixed incomes who cannot find other housing. They want to install laundry facilities in the shelters, and see the shelters aesthetically improved, particularly the men's. "There's an assumption that you can't give men anything soft, that they'd become lazy bums," Farrell said."They are the hardest to rehabilitate and there is not much to show for it, you're just keeping people alive. But there's still a lot to be done."