On Nov. 6, District of Columbia voters will be asked to lead the country in declaring a right to overnight shelter. We are putting this question, Initiative 17, t before the people, because our trust rests in people and not in institutions. The concerns of Washingtonians, as expressed to us, are reflected in the following paragraphs.
First, Initiative 17 won't absolve the federal government of responsibility, because it isn't possible for the District to order the federal government to provide services to the destitute. Because the federal government have a legitimate responsibility, members of Community for Creative Non-Violence are seeking a change of heart and policy toward the homeless on the part of the Reagan administration.
Permanent "warehousing" of the homeless is a concern. Having spent over a decade providing shelter to the city's homeless, we understand their many problems and needs better than most. But no one can reasonably be expected to provide needed services (psychiatric/medical help, jobs, benefits, housing) until we have brought the homeless inside, determining definitively who they are and what they really need. It is naive to believe that it will happen in any other way.
Given these limitations, will the homeless from other cities still be attracted to the District simply for free overnight shelter? Under Initiative 17, shelter need not be provided to people who have come to the District expressly for that purpose. But that provision exists because many people are concerned about the issue, not because it has been shown to be a real problem.
The National Coalition for the Homeless has identified 50 governors, mayors and county executives who claim that, because of their generosity, their areas have become meccas for all of America's homeless.
Four years ago, a New York City court declared a legal right to shelter there. Local officials expressed concern that the city's visibility, coupled with the heavy publicity surrounding the ruling, would draw people from out of town. City and private officials now acknowledge that this has not occurred. There has been no noticeable additional influx of homeless people.
Probably the biggest concern of District taxpayers is the cost attached to Initiative 17.
Last December, D.C. officials declared that existing facilities, capable of providing shelter to fewer than 500 homeless people, were more than adequate. City administrators now claim that there may be as many as 15,000 homeless people in the District, and the cost of providing them shelter could exceed $20 million in the first year.
No one can say with certainty how many homeless people there are in this city. Therefore, it isn't possible to predict accurately the total cost of putting Initiative 17 into effect. But this much we do know: District taxpayers already are spending millions of dollars a year to keep people homeless. The provision of services that are inappropriate and excessive (called "overinstitutionalization") occurs when a homeless person is hospitalized or incarcerated as a consequence of, or a solution to, his or her real problem: a need for shelter. For instance, it costs $410 to $550 a day at D.C. General Hospital, and $214 a day to house a mental patient at St. Elizabeths. In contrast, the cost of providing a hot meal and a night's shelter ranges from $1 to $20 a night. But because a shelter bed is not available, a hospital bed becomes necessary.
Even if passage of Initiative 17 were to cost millions of dollars a year, it wouldn't really matter. What matters most is that it is the just and necessary thing to do. We need only look at the lonely, frightened faces of the men and women eating out of trash bins or mumbling to themselves on park benches to know this.
All the answers may not be known yet, but while we shape and mold the longer-term solutions, we must take action. If we are to call ourselves a civilized people, we must, at a minimum, guarantee the homeless -- God's children all -- basic overnight shelter.