An article Sunday incorrectly stated the source of funds donated by the law firm Howrey and Simon to assist The Committee to Save Initiative 17 campaign, which seeks to restore the guarantee of shelter to the homeless in the District. The $30,000 donation made by the law firm came from attorney fee awards paid by the city to the law firm in a case involving conditions at the city-run shelters. (Published 11/6/90)
Advocates for the District's homeless, who in 1984 won an overwhelming victory at the polls that guaranteed access to overnight shelter, now find themselves locked in a difficult campaign against much of the city's political establishment to preserve the guarantee.
Days before the voting on Referendum 005, neither the shelter-rights advocates nor those seeking to repeal the automatic-access law seem certain of victory. The advocates petitioned for the referendum to maintain the right to shelter after the D.C. Council moved to limit it in June.
Signs promoting each side of the measure now have joined those supporting various candidates for mayor on lampposts and trees all around town. Leaders for and against the issue have faced off on radio shows, met at community forums and lobbied council and mayoral candidates.
Though voters approved the 1984 shelter provision by a ratio of 3 to 1, shelter advocates are campaigning in a different atmosphere this year.
In July, the advocates lost their most forceful spokesman when Mitch Snyder committed suicide. Snyder had led the fight for the 1984 measure, called Initiative 17.
Mayor Marion Barry, most D.C. Council members and four mayoral candidates have said they oppose the measure because of concerns about the mounting cost of providing shelter. The city's two umbrella neighborhood associations, the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations and the Federation of Citizens Associations of the District of Columbia, also oppose it.
Meanwhile, polls and interviews across the nation as well as in Washington indicate that public sympathy for the homeless is declining. Municipal officials elsewhere are beginning to crack down on the activities of street people.
Defeat for Referendum 005 would be the first indication from District voters of a mood change.
Initiative 17 made Washington the only large U.S. city providing an absolute right for the homeless to receive a safe and sanitary place to sleep.
"That is what makes D.C.'s law so important," said American University professor Susan Bennett, who specializes in homeless and poverty law. "Few people have ever articulated a right to any kind of economic security."
If the measure is defeated, those seeking shelter no longer would be able to demand it, and limits would be set on how long they can stay.
The right to shelter led first to a string of D.C. Superior Court decisions requiring the city to meet standards in shelters, and then to fines when the city did not meet them.
Local advocates for the homeless have hailed the decisions, which include requirements that homeless families be moved from hotels to apartment-style housing and that city-run shelters be equipped with clean sheets, hot water, soap and functioning showers and toilets.
The court decisions are what changed the image of Initiative 17, said Susie Sinclair-Smith, director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.
"It was those fines and those court orders that required the city to spend more money that gave Initiative 17 a bad reputation," Sinclair-Smith said. "It is easier for the taxpayer to get upset about the court fines versus looking at why the city is being fined."
The city has been fined about $3 million in the past two years for not complying with court orders, said lawyer John W. Nields Jr., who has handled several of the cases brought against the city by advocates for the homeless.
All arguments about the measure seem to come back to the cost. The city says the program is far too expensive at a time when taxes would have to be raised just to maintain services. Citizens Against 005 co-chairman Dorothy Brizill said the referendum "would return the District to . . . an open-ended 'blank check' shelter policy."
Those in favor of the shelter measure say that the city handles poorly the money it has, and that a good shelter program is possible at less cost with better management. Carol Fennelly, of the Community for Creative Non-Violence shelter, who heads the campaign for the measure, said she and Snyder had often offered to share their expertise on running a large shelter but were always turned down.
"We are the kings and queens of cost-efficient programs," she said. "It offends me that city money is being wasted."
Mayor Barry has said the District spends more per capita on the homeless than any other city. He pointed to 1988 figures of $27.3 million spent to provide services to 7,513 people. Last year, the city said it budgeted $40 million for the shelter program and assisted 2,800 families and individuals.
The two groups that have organized around the referendum issue have each raised money to support their causes, according to financial disclosure forms.
Fennelly's group, The Committee To Save Initiative 17, received more than $44,000 in contributions, with $30,000 of that coming from the law firm of Howrey and Simon. Nields, a partner in that firm, said the contributions came from an account of about $75,000 in court fines that was set aside for homeless causes. The Community for Creative Non-Violence donated $5,000.
Citizens Against 005 recorded an income of $1,110. Brizill said the group has raised about $900 since filing that report.
Its largest contribution was $1,000 from the Washington, D.C., Realtors PAC Inc. Don Denton, president of the board that made the donation, said, "We took a look at what Initiative 17 did to the city in terms of putting a gun to the D.C. government to provide housing for anyone who wanted it. What we saw was a terrific waste of financial resources."Special correspondent Myra Dandridge contributed to this report.
HISTORY OF HOMELESS INITIATIVE
Nov. 6, 1984: D.C. voters overwhelmingly approve Initiative 17, requiring the District to provide "adequate and accessible shelter" for homeless people who request it.
Jan. 7, 1989: A D.C. Superior Court judge orders sweeping improvements in the city's system of shelters for the homeless, declaring that the District's actions for the homeless are "inept."
Jan. 13, 1989: City says spending on the homeless has risen from $9.2 million in fiscal 1985 to $27.3 million in fiscal 1988, but judge turns down request that she delay or abandon the Jan. 7 order.
Dec. 31, 1989: City fails to meet judge's deadline for improving overnight shelters and begins accumulating fines of up to $25,000 a day.
June 26, 1990: D.C. Council approves D.C. Emergency Overnight Shelter Amendment Act of 1990 to end the policy of providing unlimited shelter and assistance to the homeless.
Sept. 5, 1990: Referendum 005, an effort by advocates for the homeless to restore the provisions of Initiative 17, is placed on the November ballot.
Oct. 12, 1990: D.C. Superior Court judge orders wide-ranging improvements in the provision of shelter for homeless families, requiring that within 90 days the city move families from run-down welfare hotels to "apartment-style housing" with kitchens and bathrooms.