Six days a week, a growing number of men and women and sometimes families form a line outside St. Aloysius Catholic Church in the District to pick up 60 cents each a day. It's all the church can afford to give them.
For 17 years, the charity, called The Line, has provided a small group of streetpeople with carfare, food, and clothing. But The Line is now in peril because government budget cutbacks have swelled its ranks with poor people from other agencies all over the city. The Line has grown too long.
It is no wonder. The District's financially strapped Department of Human Services can no longer provide services for some of its former clients and has been referring the city's poor and needy to private agencies already overloaded with caseloads of their own.
The director of one such agency, the St. Vincent de Paul Conference at St. Aloysius Church, operator of The Line, says she soon will have to refuse the outflux of referrals from the Department of Human Services because this policy has caused the number of persons she sees to "skyrocket".
"DHS calls us constantly or, without telling us, they just send people over for jobs, shelter, food, clothing or rent money," said Bernadette Fisher, director of the aid program for streetpeople at 19th and I streets NW. "This practice disgusts me," she continued. "After all, this is their job -- we're already overburdened with people in desperate straits."
DHS Director James A. Buford, acknowledging his agency's new referral policy, said: "We have been forced to call on community-based organizations to plug the gap. We have not yet received our appropriation for fiscal '82 and that, coupled with our various service reductions, requires that we seek assistance from the private sector."
Fisher contends that the number of people who line up at the church has more than doubled since DHS and other city agencies have been referring people to her. "When I came here in August of '80 we were seeing 60 people a day, but recently we've gone up to 165 a day," she said.
Fisher included the District's unemployment office and St. Elizabeth's Hospital on her list of "regulars" who steadily send her clients. She also includes the Metropolitan Police Department.
"Last Sunday, after blaring his horn, a police officer dropped off an abandoned mother and her two children. He told them there was no place where they could get help in this city, and then drove off, leaving them standing there helpless," Fisher recalled. "We're not going to turn anyone down so we finally got this family squared away," she said. "But we're a tiny operation that needs money and volunteers -- we are being overwhelmed by a city that doesn't care about its poor."
Buford, aware of the problem, says: "We will soon be meeting with community organizations and groups to explain the block grant approach to impacting on the needs of the poor. We want churches and other groups to extend themselves and offer input -- so that the needy will have more options than they do now."
In the meantime, The Line grows longer and longer at St. Aloysius Church with poor folks who don't know about or understand block grants and government proposals. They do understand they need help, and someone to care.
"Chuck, it's me!"
Charles Clement, a Jesuit volunteer, takes the names of the people in the order they appear as they start queuing up 20 minutes before the office door opens at 1:30 p.m.
"Gotcha, Robert, Gotcha, you're number 10."
It is cupcake and milk day. The October sun, magnanimous, seems to grin as it burns through a blue firmament so appealing it simultaneously calms and excites.
"Chuck, when we gonna play some ball?"
On it goes, as numbers are assigned, and Mr. Jackson, Mr. Taylor, Malcolm, Gene and Tyrone join the line.
On an adjacent field, students from neighboring Gonzaga High School play football and jog -- running and playing hard. They yell, scream, smile, joke and pat each others' backsides -- exulting in their youth, camaraderie and the sheer joy of a good time. There is little communication with The Line.
"Gotcha. Number 95."
The reds, yellows, and oranges of the leaves, shifted by a light breeze, twinkle as they reflect the sunlight. Trilling birds accent the riot of color and the gleeful sounds from across the way.
But, for the moment, The Line is quiet. A quiet at odds with the day.
It is 1:28 p.m. and the line now numbers 139 persons. Mostly black and mostly men, more people will come until the doors close at 3:30. They come, the streetpeople, some of whom are college graduates, to collect 60 cents to do with as they wish. They come, the families, to collect food and clothing, to plead for rent money to stave off eviction. They come, the stranded, seeking a bus ticket to get them home to New York or Pittsburgh or Lansing. Waiting in The Line, they are quiet.
"It's degrading and humiliating for them to stand there," said Donna Pavetti, a social minister at the church. "It takes courage to come here and let people see how truly down and out you are."
Begun in 1964 by Horace McKenna, assistant pastor of St. Aloysius, the St. Vincent de Paul program initially was small-scale and run soley by McKenna. It now has a staff of four, all Jesuit volunteers, who receive room and board and a $60 monthly stipend. Last year, the program gave nearly $35,000 to the poor and needy with monies donated by the friends and acquaintances of the 81-year-old McKenna, other churches, and two fund-raising drives put on by Gonzaga High School students.
The day's bank is usually $100. Small change, 60 or 80 cents, is given to the people who request it -- a reason need not be given. There is a restriction, albeit a loose one, that limits this help to five times a month. The program also dispenses bags of food, usually containing grits, cereal, syrup, macaroni and rice, purchased from the Capital Area Community food bank in Northeast.
"Our object is to get people off the line," said Fisher,"and we have done it by providing carfare and clothes for a job interview or money for a prescription that must be filled."
"That's why we're here," said program founder McKenna. "You can't blame the poor for being poor -- you blame the system in the grips of which they live -- the government, the church, and the family have not awakened to the responsibility of helping its poor."
The line is a clean one. Many of the men, at the programs' expense, stay at the nearby Gospel Mission where, for $2 a night, they receive two meals and a shower.
The office door opens. A name is called. The person enters. The door is closed. "We've got to leave them some dignity," explains Fisher.
The waiting room across from the office is beginning to fill with men ranging in age from early 20s to late 60s. The men talk with their eyes. They say: "You don't bother me, I won't bother you."
Disabled veterans, construction workers, elderly people on fixed incomes, alcoholics are sitting, staring straight ahead. Camera-shy, reporter-shy, they are grateful for not being pestered.
"Chuck, it's Elmer!"
The shout came from The Line as Elmer Key arrived with his guitar. Within moments, the outside line turned funky as Elmer sang and played a medley of gospel, blues and old Chuck Berry hits. The Line loosened up and the talk flowed during the off-key harmonizing. But no one spoke of misery. Or pain. Or poverty. They talked about Reggie Jackson. The weather. Old times. And Ronald Reagan. Good humor matched the day's sun.
A well-dressed elderly man, walking with a cane and nodding to everyone, went inside and reappeared with a bag of food. "Nice place," he said, "food and music."
It's 3:30 p.m. Nearly 150 people have gone through the line. Last winter, the St. Vincent de Paul aid program had to close down for two months because so much money was spent to stave off evictions and pay utility bills. Now the program is operating on a hand-to-mouth basis, with the decision to open on any given day determined by the number of checks that arrive on the preceding day. Said Fisher: "We're in a crunch."
"Chuck, see you boy. Thanks."
"See you, Elmer."
Most of the people have gone. Somewhere. One man, presumably a streetperson, meticulously polices the area.
"Sometimes they don't want money or food," Fisher said as she raced off to another office to continue her chores.
Then what do they want, she was asked."A smile," she replied.