It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness," goes the ancient motto. It's a sentiment more easily said than done. But two examples of people taking the saying seriously recently have been evident here. Reacting to frigid temperatures and homeless people, the D.C. Council voted to open the District Building to street people; responding to her son's and 18 other youths' slayings last year, a mother started an organization to help city youth.
Some people called the city government's decision to open its doors to the homeless temporarily a stopgap measure, and indeed, it was no panacea to the homeless problem in which an estimated 6,500 -- some say as many as 10,000 -- people are without shelter. But last Friday, as I stood watching men walk down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the District Building's temporary haven from cold and fear, it seemed clear that the gesture was more than mere symbolism.
It was the evening after the big snow, and by 6 p.m. Pennsylvania Avenue looked empty and elegant. But in front of the District Building stood a slightly dilapidated Department of Human Services bus, which gave notice that something unusual was afoot -- the homeless were gathering on the bus before going inside to bed down.
Not only was the District Building a roof over the heads of people who had no place to sleep, it also provided an example of kindness and sharing to many of us who don't want to get involved in other people's lives.
City officials should not think their action buys one minute of time in their pressing obligation to find comprehensive solutions to the crises of the homeless, however. The recent stabbing deaths of two handicapped brothers in a city shelter are a reminder of the anxiety in which these families live, and they place a serious obligation on the government and elected officials to accelerate the pace of dealing with the lack of low- and moderate-income housing, which is at the heart of so many other problems.
If the mood outside the District Building that night was temporary relief, however, the temper farther east was sad yet tinged with the hope that comes with action. For, about that same time in Southeast Washington, Barbara and Michael Merriweather were finally able to cry and express some of the emotion they felt about the death of their son Kendall, 17, who was killed a month ago by a youth who was trying to steal his boom box radio. But Barbara Merriweather had done more than cry. Earlier in the day, she announced the formation of an organization called Citizens Redirecting Youth (CRY) in an attempt to alter the aberrant behavior, alienation and negative attitudes of some of the city's youth.
Merriweather envisions an organization in which youth would play a significant role, but also in which concerned people from throughout the city would be involved. She hopes that middle-class blacks who have moved out of poor neighborhoods into the suburbs and more affluent District neighborhoods will join in, lending their skills and expertise, for example.
"I can understand how those who were raised in the ghetto, went to school and struggled to achieve may not want to get involved because it was such a struggle to get out," she said, "but the kids over here don't have any role models but the drug dealers who are making money and driving BMWs. I need all the ideas people can come up with because this is a city problem."
With CRY still in its embryonic stage, Merriweather has few firm ideas about how the group finally will be structured or how its programs and activities will operate. Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) helped Merriweather plan the organization, and Merriweather said she expects to meet with Mayor Marion Barry and Police Chief Maurice T. Turner. But she stresses that this is not a political group and adds that all institutions and residents need to be involved. "I feel my whole world falling apart; it is hard for me to try to do this, but I will," she said.
Commenting on CRY's planned candlelight vigil along Martin Luther King Avenue at 5 p.m. Saturday, Merriweather sees it as a way to send a message to the killers and dope dealers. "It will let them know that we are not afraid of them because they carry guns or sell drugs. I was born in Washington. We're going to show them. They may murder our kids, but we're going to do something."
I admire Merriweather's spunk in lighting a candle and her determination that its glow will make a difference. Like the gesture by city officials of opening city hall to the homeless, however, whether her efforts amount to more than symbolism remains to be seen. Yet, given the mounting crisis with Washington's children, a vigil seems a good start, and I hope people all over the city will respond. I know that I'll be there.