I don't intend this as a cheap shot at the people who run the District's emergency shelter program; I don't know what to do about the homeless, either.
But it does occur to me that the city, its schools and streets already beset by youngsters lacking in the basic human values, is breeding another batch of these human time bombs: young people who have no respect for the person or property of others, and who don't even have to be particularly angry to blow you away.
I refer to the children who, with their hapless, homeless parents, are being shuttled daily from one inhumane situation to another.
The lead of Post staffer Marcia Slacum Greene's story last Friday tells it all:
"Daily, a caravan of homeless District parents carrying infants, tugging toddlers and struggling with stuffed suitcases treks back and forth from the Budget Motor Inn, a shelter that will not house them by day, to the Pitts Motor Hotel, which cannot keep them at night."
Stray dogs at the local animal shelter are accorded greater dignity.
There are no obvious villains in the piece. Cornelius Pitts, owner of the Pitts Motor Hotel, has been criticized by a lot of people (including those who have started "regentrifying" his Belmont Street neighborhood) for making a lot of money sheltering the homeless. But if he is making money, it is because his establishment, a respectable motel and night club before the 1968 riots killed his business, is chock-full of families who have nowhere else to go. He feeds more than he can house; hence the grim shuttle.
Ditto for the Budget Motor Inn on New York Avenue. Budget's general manager, Jerry Holbrook, won't win any public relations awards. "I like these arrangements," he told Greene. "Pick them up at 7:30 a.m. and bring them back at 7:30 p.m. I don't even want them here if they are sick. Let them go to Capitol City," another shelter hotel. But the fact is that Holbrook, like Pitts and others, is providing a necessary service for his $50-a-day room.
Much of the criticism of the shelter program has focused on the dollar cost, which by any accounting is enormous.
My concern here is the human cost. The desperate and dispirited parents of the 480 homeless families in the emergency shelters can at least understand to some degree what is happening to them. Many are working, or seeking work, hoping that things will somehow get better.
But the 1,300 children are a different matter. Themselves victims now, many of them will grow up to victimize the rest of us. Save for a lucky few, they will grow up ignorant (how can we expect them to perform well in school?) and rootless (what will they know of stability?). When they watch as their mothers transport their worldly goods from one dismal place to another, there being no place they can store anything in safety, how can we expect them to grow into adolescence and young adulthood with any respect for the person and property of others?
I have remarked (too frequently, some say) on the difficulty of raising children in poverty-stricken single-family homes, even when they have a roof, a kitchen and a place to put things. The children of this underclass existence are likely to become school failures, drug abusers and criminals.
It must be many times worse for the rootless ones in these dreadful shelters. We can only guess at the effects of their lost dignity, the brutal taunting they must endure when they go to school and their lack of faith in a system that destroys their humanity.
It is to the credit of our city officials that they at least try to supply them with warm beds and food. And, as I said, it is hard to know how they might do it better.
But don't we have to try? Can't we organize ourselves to tutor these youngsters so that they don't fall hopelessly behind in school? Can't our churches minister to their spiritual needs? Can't we find some way to give them some of the things that children deserve just by being here: some recreational outlets, a modicum of childish pleasure and, yes, a bit of love?
"I sit here on the steps every day with my kids," one woman told Greene as she sat in the doorway at Pitts. "What it all boils down to is people don't care if the problem is not on their doorstep."
Well, it is on our doorstep. We'd better recognize that and undertake to do something about it.