An Anacostia community group filed suit yesterday in D.C. Superior Court to force the closing of a new shelter for more than 500 homeless men in Anacostia Park.
Bernard A. Gray Sr., spokesman for the group, said that residents doubt that they will be able to close the shelter immediately but said they hope that the suit will force officials to keep their promise to close the facility in April.
The Frederick Douglass Community Improvement Council of Anacostia, a 10-year-old nonprofit community organization, alleges in the suit against local and federal officials that D.C. Mayor Marion Barry has "violated his duty" by depriving Anacostians "of the ability to participate on equal terms in the economic, cultural and intellectual life in the District of Columbia by failing to equally distribute the chronically homeless among the eight wards."
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is charged in the suit with unlawfully financing the operation of the shelter and failing to prepare an environmental impact statement.
The D.C. Coalition, which operates the shelter, is charged with knowing that it could not find new housing for the residents in six months and thus being able to close the facility.
Anacostia residents see the shelter as the latest in a series of instances in which the local and federal government have used their community as "a dumping ground" for unwanted and unpopular public institutions.
Anacostia and its surrounding communities are the locations of the city's old people's home, sewer plant and St. Elizabeths Hospital for the mentally ill.
Elisabeth Huguenian, president of the board of directors of the coalition, called the suit "an abomination."
"I can't take this seriously," she said. "A judge has already said we have a right to run the shelter in Anacostia. And I feel that this is a non-Christian action, coming two days before Christmas."
Gray, an Anacostia resident and attorney, complained that the shelter has an adverse impact on the nearby business community at Martin Luther King Avenue and Good Hope Road SE.
Park Police Capt. Jack D. Schamp, whose office is in a police substation directly across the street from the shelter, said that for the first time he is receiving complaints from his officers of thefts from their private cars, including batteries and hubcaps.
"We now keep an eye on the parking lot," he said. "The shelter people shortcut across our lot and we see them shopping [looking inside the cars]."
Business owners had mixed views when asked about their new neighbors. Some said the people from the shelter are good customers while others said they steal from the stores.
Hal Morris, owner of Anacostia Liquors at the east end of the 11th Street Bridge, said, "They come in, they go out. I don't have problems with anybody."
George Hopkins, owner of Wingate TV Repair across the street, agreed. "They haven't been here long enough for us to evaluate any problems," he said. "They don't come in my store."
But his next-door neighbor, Otis Williams who operates a florist shop and a deli, said he has asked some of the homeless men not to stand in his florist shop for warmth on cold days.
"My female customers won't come in here if they see a lot of men standing around," he said.
Williams added that for the first time since 1967 he rearranged his food displays after he caught several men stealing milk and juice. He said that he suspected that they were shelter residents because he did not recognize them as residents of the neighborhood.
Jerry Holeman, owner of Glass House Opticians at 1227 Good Hope Rd. SE, said he has noticed shelter people loitering outside his store. He said he has hired some to carry out trash and asked others to move away.
Huguenian said the coalition has instructed residents to behave properly inside and outside the shelter.
"We tell them no violence, no arguing and to respect the rights of other people." She said several of the residents are mentally ill and their actions are unpredictable.
Lt. Willie White, spokesmen for the D.C. police, said officers were called to the shelter about 30 times between Nov. 17 and Dec. 21 to investigate complaints ranging from disorderly conduct to use of drugs to stolen autos.
Huguenian said she has received no complaints from police.