Despite 16-hour days, a clientele of tattered men and women who live out of shopping bags, and throbbing headaches after work, Dennis Bethea enjoys his job as head of the District's new office for the homeless.
"This job affords me the luxury of getting paid for what I used to do when I was an advocate," said Bethea, 34. He formerly worked as director of social services at St. Stephen of the Incarnation Episcopal Church, and often helped the homeless from the nearby 14th Street area. "The advantage now is I can not only do it, but I can correct it."
Bethea's appointment came in November when a sustained hunger strike by activist Mitch Snyder brought local and national attention to the plight of the homeless. That same month, city voters approved a ballot initiative that requires the city to provide "adequate overnight shelter" for the homeless. The city, which opposed the initiative, is now fighting it in court.
From his peach-colored office in a converted school in Southwest, Bethea runs the 10 shelters that receive city money. He has a staff of 26 and a budget of $8.2 million to help the city's estimated 2,000 to 5,000 homeless.
Bethea brings the optimism and enthusiasm of a crusading minister to his job, but quickly admits that the "hours are a bit much." He said he is more tired than ever, spends too much time on trivia and hates "the pain of watching people suffer while not being able to remedy [their problems] quickly."
He added: "It's a lot more frustrating . . . [than] I thought it'd be. There are a lot of nights when I don't get much sleep. I wake up in the middle of the night worrying about a particular problem."
Bethea's days start at 7:30 a.m. at the former Randall Junior High school, First and I streets SW, which is now the office of the social service administration of the city's Department of Human Services.
After work he usually makes an unannounced stop at a shelter or two, many times sampling the food, then heads to a community meeting that can last until 10 p.m.
When a four-alarm fire in an apartment building at 1444 W St. NW left 34 families homeless last month, Bethea was there from 5:30 p.m. to 2:30 the next morning, helping each to find shelter.
"I'm a certified workaholic; I like it," said Bethea, who spent a recent spring-like weekend at home rewriting a budget report. He wears a beeper so his office can find him during the day and the Mayor's Command Center can track him down "at least three times every night -- in the winter, more frequently."
He grew up in Trenton, N.J., the youngest of a family of 12. They received public assistance to supplement his father's income as an unskilled laborer.
He remembers wearing shoes with cardboard soles, bought from the Salvation Army for 25 cents, but, he said, his mother would polish the tops until they gleamed.
"It wasn't a depressing kind of poverty," Bethea said. "I didn't realize how poor I was until I was older."
One of the joys of his new salary of $43,000 a year is that he can send money to his mother, he said.
After graduating from Rutgers University he joined the Peace Corps in 1974 and taught English in Ethiopia, worked as a recruiter, then served as an associate Peace Corps director from 1978-81.
He also became a Republican, attracted by that party's bootstrap philosophy for the poor.
"I aspired to the Republican Party because they are the party of those that have," he said. "I had been opposed to the Democratic way of taking care of poor people." In 1982, however, he registered as a Democrat so he could vote for Mayor Marion Barry, he said.
Bethea brings that same bootstrap philosophy to his new job. He believes that the homeless should not be "warehoused" in shelters, but placed in rehabilitative programs and taught jobs.
He plans to spend the spring and fall launching job-training programs for the homeless and overseeing the renovation of the 10 city-funded shelters, nine of which are operated by private groups. He added that the city shelters and the 23 others that are privately run will remain full even in warm weather.
There are an estimated 2,500 beds for the homeless in the city.
Bethea sees his main accomplishments as making it easier for the homeless to get into shelters, providing alternative space in hotels for displaced families and giving private shelter-operators someone in city government to assist them. And he prides himself on not being a bureaucrat.
Bethea's work has won him mostly high marks from others who work with the homeless. Tom Nees, director of the Community of Hope, said that Bethea's appointment is a "helpful" sign.
"I"m pleased the mayor chose someone who has had some contact with those of us who are out here and not someone who has spent their life in city hall," said Nees, who serves on the D.C. Commission on Homelessness, with Bethea.
Rev. John Steinbruck of the Luther Place Memorial Church and another commission member, said he's "supportively hopeful" on Bethea, but added that "he's now an official, and we're no longer in the trenches together. So we'll have to see how it works out."
Bethea's most vocal critic is Snyder, the outspoken head of the Community for Creative Non-Violence, which operates the city's largest men's shelter, with about 1,000 beds. Snyder called Bethea's office a waste of money and "another layer of bureaucracy that really isn't necessary."