A week or so after the woman showed up at the Sarah House for the homeless last year, she was told she no longer could sleep at the shelter. The reason, Elisabeth Huguenin recently recalled, was that the woman refused to be deloused and her lice posed a danger to other residents of the shelter near Thomas Circle.
Huguenin, president of the D.C. Coalition for the Homeless, said she called the city's other shelters and asked them not to take the woman unless she agreed to be deloused. All complied, she said, except one: the District's largest shelter, operated by the Community for Creative Non-Violence in a dilapidated building at 425 Second St. NW.
CCNV leader Mitch Snyder recalled that the woman was admitted. He said that he does not remember her having lice, just that she was filthy and unkempt and refused to shower.
"But even if she had lice," Snyder said, "we wouldn't have put the woman out. You have to start by accepting people with dignity. You can't do it with force and coercion."
But Huguenin explained: "I was not willing to endanger 15 women for one woman. When you love somebody, you can't just let them do anything they want with their lives or to others. You have to put your love into action and help people who at that time cannot cope."
That dispute between Snyder and Huguenin underlines the differences between the CCNV and the coalition, which is composed of most of the operators of the District's more than two dozen shelters for the homeless. If everything goes as the federal government and the coalition have planned, a new shelter operated by the coalition soon will replace the one run by CCNV.
On Friday Huguenin's group officially received a $3.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to operate a 600-bed temporary shelter in Anacostia Park and establish and renovate long-term shelters elsewhere in the city.
The Anacostia shelter is expected to be ready in mid-October. Soon after it opens, the government intends to close CCNV's downtown shelter.
The coalition's board includes the Rev. Ernest Gibson, executive director of the Washington area Council of Churches; Dennis Bethea, chief of the D.C. government office of emergency shelter and support services, and the Rev. Imagene Stewart, who runs her own shelter for families.
After a 51-day fast by Snyder last fall, President Reagan promised to make the downtown facility a "model physical shelter." But the CCNV and the government soon parted ways on what this would involve.
When HHS authorized a $2.7 million renovation in May, CCNV called the plan inadequate and prevented federal workers from starting work. The CCNV sued to have its own plan implemented, which the government said would cost about $10 million.
Federal officials then said that they would close the 800-bed shelter and demolish the building, which was constructed as a "temporary" facility during World War II and later used by Federal City College. When HHS offered the renovation money to the District government for other shelter programs, Mayor Marion Barry refused to accept it.
On Aug. 19 U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Richey ruled that the shelter could be closed, but only after its residents were relocated.
Last Thursday and Friday the federal government filed the plans for the temporary Anacostia shelter with the U.S. Court of Appeals, which has not ruled on the case.
Huguenin, a psychiatric social worker with a master's degree from Catholic University, said that most of the homeless are mentally ill.
Until a few years ago, she said, most of these people would have been confined to mental hospitals. They were released under programs of deinstitutionalization, generally on court orders after lawsuits by patient advocacy groups, Huguenin said.
"It was a beautiful idea," she said. "But, unfortunately, there aren't the facilities to take care of these people -- in Washington or elsewhere in the country -- and many just wind up on the streets."
To care for such people takes firm direction, she said, not "laissez faire," which she said is how the CCNV operates its shelter.
The new shelter will have an array of medical and psychological services, provided at first by personnel from the U.S. Public Health Service and the National Institute of Mental Health. The homeless who stay at the facility, which will be linked to downtown by special buses, will be required to undergo a "needs assessment," according to a request for funds approved by HHS.
"We want these people to change, so they are able to be on their own," Huguenin said. "We will not reinforce their mental illnesses by just letting them sit and vegetate, which is what is happening at Second Street now."
"We are simply warehousing people," Snyder acknowledged in an interview Friday. "But that's because we can't bring the services into a building that's in such poor condition. The government won't do what is needed to fix it up."
Snyder said that even if his organization was able to arrange all programs it wants at its shelter, the CCNV still could not be sure that homeless people would participate in them.
"You can't force them, because they'll leave," he said. "It's like trying to jump on a wild deer, they'll run away . . . . But if you treat people with respect and dignity and build up a healthy relationship, in time many of them want to change . . . . They don't need a bureaucratic environment that dehumanizes them and drives them into the ground."
Snyder insisted that "the only real rule at the CCNV shelter is the Golden Rule." People are barred, he said, only for violence or for selling drugs or alcohol.
Unlike at almost all other shelters, persons entering 425 Second Street NW do not have to register or bathe, Snyder said. Carrying drugs, alcohol or weapons is not forbidden.
"You couldn't stop it anyway," Snyder said. "I was in prison for 2 1/2 years and they were searching all the time, and they couldn't stop it. Searching people is ludicrous."
"Men will walk in with bottles of liquor and wine under their arms and they go into their rooms and start drinking," he continued. "I don't like alcohol at all. It's despicable stuff. But as long as they're not hurtful to others, we don't stop them. If we tried to, they'd either sneak it in anyway or they wouldn't come in at all."
In recent weeks, Sndyer said, the Second Street shelter has housed an average of slightly under 600 men a night and about 75 women in a separate wing.
Huguenin said that the shelter in Anacostia, another World War II "temporary" facility most recently used by the 1985 presidential inaugural committee, will house only men. She said women will be cared for in facilities that her group expects to arrange within the next two weeks, but she refused to identify the locations.
She said that by April 30, when the Anacostia building must be vacated, smaller, permanent shelters will be established, probably closer to downtown, to handle about 600 homeless men.
The District has about 2,500 shelter beds, almost a third of them in the CCNV shelter, according to D.C. government figures.
Huguenin predicted that when the Anacostia facility opens it will be heavily used by those now at Second Street, but Snyder said he believes few will go there.
"It's just too far away, and it's right across the street from a Park Police headquarters," Snyder said. "That's not a very sensitive choice of location."
He added that even if the CCNV is ordered to leave the building, "We won't simply walk out."
"We've made it difficult for them to take the building . . . ," he said. "We've put steel bars across the front door and steel plates across places that are vulnerable."
He said many of the homeless who go there regularly "have both the desire and the right to fight for their home," and he added: "We're not into hand-to-hand combat. That's not our philosophy. But I think it would take force to empty the building."
Dixon Arnett, the HHS deputy undersecretary who helped make arrangements for the new shelter, said that he does not expect a confrontation.
"We're assuming that Mitch and his people are true to their name of 'Non-Violence,' " Arnett said.