AS PRESSURES grow on the District budget, city officials complain that suburban areas are adding to the load by directing homeless people to city shelters. This is not a new situation, but some officials say that it is getting worse and that other jurisdictions should start carrying their fair share.
Suburban officials observe that the traditional class of homeless person--the hard-core drifter-- has always gravitated toward cities. Cities afford greater anonymity, more public buildings and parks to serve as daytime resting places, and the soup kitchens, blood banks, labor pools and missions that provide a means of survival for the derelict. And it is so that the chronically down-and-out have few choices outside the central city. When Post reporter Neil Henry spent several weeks posing as a bum a few years ago, he found that Washington's suburbs offered little help beyond a quick referral to a District shelter. That is still the general practice.
Nearby Maryland and Virginia counties do have some shelters, most of them run by private charities. But these facilities are designed to help a different--and growing--class of homeless: families dispossessed by unemployment, desertion, child abuse or wife-beating, the increasing number of mentally ill people who have been discharged by mental institutions, and elderly people whose former housing has been converted to other purposes. County officials say it is hard enough to get their communities to find places for even this relatively acceptable sort of homeless person, much less the unwashed vagrant.
Though economic recovery may reduce pressures on city and county governments, the need to provide better help for the homeless is not likely to diminish noticeably. Jails no longer offer temporary shelter for vagrants. Mental institutions no longer lock up disturbed people in remote areas where the general society can forget about them. In the city as well as the suburbs, low-income housing, rooming houses and single-room occupancy hotels are being torn down. Federal funding and neighborhood hospitality for low-income housing and halfway houses are drying up.
This is a shameful state of affairs for a metropolitan area that still ranks among the nation's wealthiest. Nor is it the problem of a single jurisdiction. Areas officials should sit down together, take stock of the dimensions of the problem, and come up with a regional approach for helping the many kinds of people without shelter.