Many residents are complaining about the establishment of hospices and residential care houses for AIDS patients in their neighborhoods, two of which have opened recently here.
"We literally woke up one morning and there it was," said one resident who lives near a Northwest row house where five women with AIDS live. "Nobody had been told it was coming, and the psychological impact is the same as if a radioactive waste dump had been placed here."
On the other side of town, in Northeast, a resident who lives near a hospice run by Roman Catholic nuns complains about "AIDS people roaming the streets, contaminating everything."
Virgil Thompson, a local advisory neighborhood commissioner in the Northeast neighborhood, says the confusion and hysteria stem in part from residents not being told that the houses would be used by AIDS patients.
"I want people to know that we are our brothers' keepers and we are compassionate, but that you can't just slip these kinds of places into a neighborhood," he said.
Added Joann Whitt, president of the Ward 5 Citizens Coalition, an ad hoc group formed to protest the home that claims a membership of 60 families: "There is nothing wrong with providing those services, but we are not assured that there might not be long-term hazards."
It can be argued that no neighborhood is going to favor a hospice for AIDS patients any more than it would favor a halfway house for prison convicts. But that is no reason groups concerned with providing care for AIDS patients should not make more of an effort.
Misinformation about AIDS continues to be a major obstacle to its prevention as well as the care for those who have the disease.
Unfortunately, there are still people who believe that the disease is spread by insects, clothing and even through the air.
Still, fear is fear, and better measures should be taken to quell the fears of misinformed people. One resident said he is concerned that waste material from the house near him is set out on the street and subject to be rummaged by cats and dogs, which then return home to play with children.
"Suppose a cat scratched my child after messing around in one of those cans?" the resident asked.
The answer is that nothing would happen, except that the child would have been scratched by a cat. AIDS is not spread by animals. But someone should have taken time to talk with residents about this before their fears got out of hand.
Some people are concerned that hospices lower the property value of a neighborhood, but there are no studies or reports to suggest such a thing.
One of the women with AIDS in the Northwest hospice, which is the first of its kind for women in the nation, says, "I could have signed myself out of the hospital, but I didn't want to have to prostitute myself for a place to stay."
This is a person who needs to be given a place to stay, at any cost, lest she spread the disease at an enormous rate.
In the case of the house run by the nuns, pressure from residents appears to have forced the D.C. Zoning Board to rule that the house does not comply with a city zoning ordinance that allows "charitable activities," but not a hospice.
This ruling smacks of trying to zone AIDS patients into "acceptable" areas, which may make some residents feel good until they settle down to deal with the facts: The Washington area has more than 1,100 reported AIDS cases, and the city has the fifth-highest incidence of AIDS in the country.
This means that whether residents know it or not, AIDS victims are living in our neighborhoods already. What is needed are more groups like the Roman Catholic nuns and the Damien Ministries who are willing to care for them, at least to get them off the streets.
And as part of that care, they should make sure that residents have a better understanding of the problems of their new neighbors -- lest their admirable purpose be defeated by ignorance.