Commuters frequenting the Farragut West Metro station recently found the entrance closed off with a high black fence and the customary homeless inhabitants gone. The measure was taken with precisely that end in mind -- ridding the station of vagrants and the stench they allegedly created by using the facility as a public restroom.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority said that fences like the one at Farragut West may pop up at other District stations but that ''no final decisions'' had been made. The result, according to Metro, will be cleaner stations.
Metro said its job is to provide public transportation, not public toilets, and it appears prepared to spend large amounts of money -- $3,700 for a temporary fence to be replaced later by a more ''esthetically pleasing'' model -- to keep the homeless out and quiet complaints from some commuters.
In Paris -- a ''clean'' city with an extensive subway also called ''Le Metro'' -- the regional mass-transit authority (RATP) has taken a different approach to dealing with homeless subway dwellers.
The Paris Metro stations are similar to the stations in the District, and many vagrants ''camp out'' at the bottom of stairs or escalators leading down into the subway. Parisians say they often notice an odor in the morning, yet no drastic measures have been taken to bar the facilities to the city's homeless -- estimated at between 10,000 and 20,000.
However, when the temperature dipped well below freezing last January, Paris Mayor (and prime minister of France) Jacques Chirac persuaded RATP to open two stations in downtown Paris to homeless people after the Metro shut down at 1:30 a.m.
While acknowledging that the measure was one of emergency, RATP allowed several hundred homeless people to sleep in the downtown stations, and charity groups brought in blankets and portable toilets for the temporary tenants.
But RATP officials admitted that the temporary arrangements were insufficient to keep the stations clean and the vagrants from getting onto the tracks.
The emergency measure was, in effect, a step down from RATP's policy of leaving two other stations open to vagrants for up to two months during the previous two winters. That experiment failed, however, because of a lack of sanitary facilities.
RATP authorities now say they are preparing one unused station -- Saint Martin in the city's northeast -- for use by the homeless this winter if needed. Up to 200 vagrants will be allowed to sleep there at night. A public restroom has been installed and a barrier put up to keep the people away from the tracks, which are still in use.
The weather in Washington this winter is expected to be colder than usual, yet Metro has closed off one of the spots where Washington's homeless -- estimated at between 10,000 and 15,000 -- could escape the cold.
Maria Foscarinas, of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said Metro's action was part of a larger citywide effort ''to sweep the homeless out of sight.''
By making Washington's homeless disappear, the problem won't go away. While the Paris solution may not be perfect, it is perhaps worth considering.
Lawrence Boudon is a writer for Agence-France Presse.