The events have seemed tailor-made for the television show "That's Incredible." In the past three weeks, the tattered, torn, dirty and often mentally ill from Washington's mean streets suddenly found themselves in demand.
The homeless were whisked from their steam grates and benches to Rajneeshpuram, Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh's religious commune in central Oregon. The guru's follower-recruiters promised that the homeless would share the commune's "love, peace and abundance."
Five days ago, however, news accounts reported that the guru's followers had changed their promise to pay for return trips home. News accounts quoted Rajneesh spokeswoman Ma Anada Sarita as saying that new recruits would be taken by bus "to the nearest city." This, she said, is designed to discourage homeless people who are not serious about changing their life styles.
That new development has deeply disturbed some Washingtonians who deal regularly with the plight of the homeless.
"There's definitely something wrong," said Irene Shifren Levine, coordinator of the National Institute of Mental Health's program for the homeless mentally ill. "How to tease it out and see how we can intervene is the problem." D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy said the guru's recruiting of drifters was brought up at a National Black Leadership Roundtable meeting last weekend. The Rev. David Eaton of All Souls Unitarian Church said, "My concern is we don't know what happens when folks get on the bus . . . what type situation do they find themselves in?"
My own reaction is that it's immoral not to give our city's homeless -- and hundreds of others they've recruited from across the country -- return tickets home. Oregon officials have said that the move began as a way to take control of the Wasco County government by registering the homeless to vote. The guru's followers deny this, but if it is true then a power play with local residents becomes an even larger power play to dump the homeless on the doorsteps of the social service agencies in Oregon.
The poorest and most vulnerable among us will be the losers, released among already hostile Oregon residents. It will be rough for the homeless, many of whom are black, in conservative, rural and virtually all-white central Oregon.
"If they leave the ranch and come to Madras and Portland," said Stevie Remington of the American Civil Liberties Union's Oregon branch, "I'm convinced that there simply aren't enough resources to provide the aid they need. I think it's deplorable."
The result may be that many of those who might wish to leave will be forced to stay or be put into a situation they can't handle. Sister Maria of Mount Carmel House here was angered that a mentally ill woman who needs medication was recruited outside her facility and took the bus -- without any medicine. Remington, who visited the commune in July, questions the commune's humanitarian motives and says importing the down-and-out is not typical. "Most of their followers are extremely well educated, many with money and advanced degrees." She also thinks that local fears of a Rajneesh plan to take over the county are unfounded. "The numbers . . . aren't there."
If the motives aren't humanitarian and aren't to seize political control, what are they? That question is causing fear and suspicion.
D.C. psychiatrist and social activist Dr. Frances Wellsing said, "This is supposed to be a commune yet it could end up being a place to concentrate people from inner cities across the country." Chicago coalition officials had images of Jonestown after an early returnee reported they were daily given a glass jar with a liquid they were told was beer, but which he contends wasn't.
Shannon Jo Ryan, daughter of the late Rep. Leo Ryan (D-Calif.), who was killed at Jonestown, Guyana, in 1979 by followers of cult leader Jim Jones, is a resident of Rajneeshpuram. She once told Newsweek: "I don't think a suicide situation like Jonestown would ever arise. Bhagwan would never ask that of us. But if he did, I would do it."
Isn't it time for federal authorities to investigate what's going on in Rajneeshpuram?