An article in Monday's Washington Post incorrectly implied that a shelter for homeless women at 612 M St. NW is being run by the Community for Creative Non-Violence. The shelter is being run by volunteers who were formerly active in the CCNV, but who have left that organization.
Lucille won't come out. She has chosen to live under the back porch at 612 M St. NW for weeks now, raging to herself behind a green towel and a paper bag full of her belongings.
Inside, about 40 other women have been living together since July, packed into one filthy first-floor apartment, often 12 to a room. Rats and roaches stalk their foul-smelling mattresses. They share one fetid bathroom.
In the living room, women lie motionless on crudely made double-decker bunks, or sit staring into space.
The shrieks of joy from a Hollywood game show on a small television set compete with Alice, who raves in the kitchen.
The shelter is the latest creation of the leaders of the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV), the group that encouraged hundreds of street people to march on and occupy Union Station last winter to publicize the need for more shelters for homeless men and women.
Ann Splaine, 30, and John Gee, 26, were instrumental in the June 28 sit-in at the District Building in which seven women were arrested while protesting the proposed closing of a former CCNV shelter at 456 C St. NW.
Today, they and three other volunteers supervise the operation at M Street, where the women eat largely what a friend scavenges from supermarket dumpsters, and where the women are allowed to do anything they want short of violence.
"We never say no to anyone," Gee said. "We don't ask questions, and the only way we will throw someone out is if they're dangerous -- and that's only for 24 hours. The women like it here because they know that they can be themselves, and for a lot of them that means being crazy."
The scores of women who come and go at will are those who have fallen through the cracks. Many are the products of the recent deinstitutionalization movement that has dumped people like Alice and Lucille out of St. Elizabeths Hospital and onto the streets with nowhere to go, and without the ability to tolerate more structured programs run by the city and other private organizations.
Splaine and Gee flaunt the radical differences between their operation and other shelters. "We're not trying to rehabilitate them by someone else's standards," Gee said.
He ackowledged that they refused an offer from the city to use a floor of the Parkside Hotel, which the Department of of Human Resources opened Oct. 1 as a temporary shelter for families and homeless women.
"We weren't going to be able to cook our own meals there," he said.
Warren Graves, an assistant to Mayor Marion Barry, charges that Splaine and Gee are using the destitute women in their care as political leverage to obtain a building of their own, a goal they have worked on since they lost their C Street facility last summer. His view is shared in part by Veronica Maz, who runs the House of Ruth.
"If they unload their people, then they will lose their claim to need another place," she said.
Maz said last week that she has had numerous empty beds at her facility in the past but has never received requests from the M Street community to relieve the overcrowding there.
"Our women don't want to go there," Gee responded. "Besides, we get so many rejects from there that we assume they never have any room."
Even Graves, who has confronted The Women's Shelter Coordinating Committee, as the M Street group calls itself, concedes that currently no city facility exists for homeless women with mental problems.
"The Parkside," said Florence Thompson, who manages the DHR office at the hotel, "is a place for people who can help themselves."
Nor are the mental wards of St. Elizabeths the answer for most of the women at 612 M Street. Even Lucille, if she presents no danger to others, cannot be forced to be institutionalized.
"There's a severe lack of community residential programs in the district for people with mental health problems," said Rhonda Buckner, a social worker at the Mental Health Law Project. "Therefore, they take any place they can find. That woman under the porch may rather be there than in an institution."
As they did at Union Station, Splaine and Gee maintain combative positions about legitimate problems facing the poor and homeless in the district.
They don't blame their landlord for the condition of their apartment on M street, but rather thank him for allowing them to stay there for $125 a month.
"He's doing us a favor," Splaine said.
"I know it's no place for them," conceded Tommy Thomas, who bought the building early this year. "I close my eyes. But it comes down to the lesser of two evils. That place is still better for them than sitting out on the streets in the rain."
The city has done nothing about the conditions there since it denied the application of Thomas's predecessor for a certificate of occupancy on Jan. 11 due to 53 housing code violations. Thomas and his partners at BJT Associated Limited Partnership have never applied for a certificate, according to Unit 2 Housing Supervisor James Ellis.
On Thursday Graves dispatched building inspectors who made preliminary findings that public health and safety standars are being violated by the shelter.
Also, the team created by Barry after a fire on Lamont Street last year killed 10 persons will examine the apartment Nov. 1.
But in the meantime, Splaine and Gee continue to play hardball with the establishment with 40-odd women along for the ride. How long could this go on if the city doesn't act?
"Forever," Gee said. "In cities like Calcutta it goes on all the time."