Federal authorities yesteday closed down the debris-strewn makeshift shelter occupied by scores of indigent "street people" at the National Visitor Center, bringing an end to the unique nine-day takeover.
Last night, police turned away more than 200 street people and supporters seeking to reenter the huge building at the gateway to Union Station, the city's train station. Leaders of the Community for Creatiuve Non-Violence, organizers of the occupation that began Nov. 30, had vowed to return and face possible arrest.
About 100 CCNV members and other supporters, determinedly courting arrest, moved into the street at the nearby intersection of First Street and Massachusetts Avenue NE about 10:30 p.m. and refused to leave. A D.C. police supervisor at the scene said police did not plan to make arrests and, at 1 o'clock this morning about 50 persons remained in the intersection and the situation became a stalemate.
The temperature at the time was 32 degrees, with a chilling northwesterly wind of 22 miles per hour. The crowd in the intersection huddled around a fire built in a trash container, sang "We Shall Overcome" and drank hot tea.
As the indigents returned to the center earlier in the evening, city welfare agency workers diverted more than 70 of them to city-run emergency night shelters.
Yesterday's closing ended a delicate truce in which the federal government had tacitly agreed to a temporary takeover. The government did so to avoid mass arrests after CCNV announced that it would bring in the street people, even without permission, to dramatize the plight of the homeless.
CCNV spokesman Mitch Snyder angrily denounced the closing and said it "betrayed" an informal assurance given him by Robert Mendelsohn, special assistant to Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus, that the shelter operation could remain open for 30 days. Mendelsohn, who is out of town, could not be reached last night, but other high-ranking Interior officials denied any such assurance was given to Snyder.
Yesterday U.S. Park Police and visitor center employes locked up the eastern wing of the center's main gallery at about 9 a.m., just after the approximately 150 derelicts and street wanderers who slept there the night before left for the day.
Citing what he said were health and public safety hazards, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Interior Richard R. Hite told a press conference two hours later that the government could no longer allow the sprawling night shelter and soup kitchen to go on.
He said adequate space is available elsewhere in city-run emergency night shelters.
"We are not turning people out into the cold like heartless monsters," Hite said."We recognize there is a need, and we are more than satisifed that DHR can fill that need. It is simply not the job of the Interior Department to provide the service."
Organizers of the street people, led by CCNV's Snyder, vowed to stay in the visitor center until the city met two demands to provide adequate emergency night shelter for the estimated 1,000 or more homeless people in the city and eliminate all present screening and registration requirements at the shelters that, according to CCNV, turn many hard-core street people away.
DHR director Albert Russo disputed CCNV's figure of 1,000 or more street people yesterday, saying city-run shelters can now accommodate at least 500 peopel but they not been pushed anywhere close to capacity so far this autumn.
Also, he said during Hite's press conference, screening and registration must be maintained not only for the safety and identification of shelter tenants but also to weed out abusers of the system and to assist others needing medical treatment, family counseling and job referrals.
"We are not going to turn our backs on any homeless people," Russo said. Even persons unable or unwilling to provide identification are taken in, he said. Snyder has contended numerous homeless people have been turned away for lack of identification.
Both Hite and Russo praised CCNV for bringing public attention to the plight of the homeless through its media campaign and unorthodox tactic of bringing uninvited street people into the largely empty visitor center building at night. Russo acknowledged that his department opened two "back-up" emergency shelters for an additional 225 to 250 homeless persons since CCNV announced its visitor center campaign Nov. 16.
The decision to close down the visitor center shelter was approved by Interior Secretary Andrus and came after the situation there started deteriorating faster than we had expected," Hite said.