About 60 homeless men from Washington's missions, shelters, steam grates and park benches have been bused to the countryside of central Oregon in recent weeks -- free of charge -- to live and work in a commune founded by the controversial Indian mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.
For the past several weeks, chartered buses have been rolling into the city-commune, called Rajneeshpuram, hauling hundreds of the homeless and the hopeless from inner cities across the country.
Followers of Rajneesh say the effort, which so far has transplanted about 500 men to the former sheep range, is part of a massive new charity aimed at giving some of society's least fortunate persons another chance.
Their critics charge, however, that the sannyasins, as they are called, are busing in potential voters to bolster their already considerable political clout in the area.
John Rapchford, who less than a week ago lived with 600 persons in a District shelter on Second and D streets NW, was one of 30 men who arrived at Rajneeshpuram four days ago. He said yesterday in a telephone interview that he does not worry about motives, now that he lives in what he called the "best place in the world."
"On Sunday I was in Lafayette Park when a Trailways bus pulled up," said Rapchford, 34. "The people talked so nice, I decided to check it out. I jumped on it."
Rapchford, who has been chronically unemployed, said that no one requires him to work at the commune, yet he finds himself volunteering to do what he can. Food and shelter are free. "Everything people tell you about this place, that's exactly how it is," he said. "There's no place like it."
Ma Prem Isabel, spokeswoman for Rajneeshpuram, said the group's motives for bringing people such as Rapchford to their home are pure. "We are simply inviting people to participate in a community in which people enjoy life and live a constructive, beautiful life style. There are no drugs, no violence."
The only rules, she says, are that their "new friends," brought in from New York, Chicago and other cities, must obey the laws of the community and must not have any pending troubles with the law.
Isabel said the project is being financed by a foundation that was created especially by the commune. She said information about the cost of the project was not immediately available.
While the Rajneesh followers deny any ulterior motives, opponents say they are plotting a political coup.
In November, Wasco County's 9,000 registered voters will have a chance to elect two of three county commissioners and a county sheriff and cast ballots for a district attorney, a state representative and a state senator.
The fear, said an attorney for One Thousand Friends of Oregon, a land-use planning public-interest group, is that the Rajneesh community -- already facing a number of legal challenges to its right to exist -- will quickly register their newest citizens to give their voting bloc even more strength.
Bob Stacey, a staff lawyer with One Thousand Friends, said the widespread speculation is that Rajneeshpuram's 1,400 registered voters, plus about 2,000 hastily registered new arrivals, could attempt to write in candidates sympathetic to their land-use disputes.
In Oregon, 20 days' residency is sufficient to become a registered voter.
Isabel said the claim is groundless: "There would be easier and cheaper ways. It just doesn't make sense . . . . How would we control how they voted?"
Wasco County Clerk Sue Proffitt said none of the homeless recently bused in has attempted to register to vote, but she remains skeptical. "Based on past experience, I don't expect to see anything until the last minute," she said. "Surprise and overload the system is their method of operation."
Another of the District men who made the trip, 24-year-old Donald Taylor, said by telephone yesterday that before boarding the bus he had been working part time at a downtown furniture store and living in a mission at 14th and Harvard streets NW. His girlfriend had thrown him out of their apartment at nearby Clifton Terrace, he said.
"When I was on the streets, right, I had to take a chance waking up in the morning and walking through the alley," he says. Now, I live where there are no drugs, no weapons. It's nice, man. I got my own place. I don't do nothing I don't want to do."
However, William Lowe, 48, said by telephone that he wants to return to the District in a couple of weeks. Although he likes the people and the setting, he said, he misses his money -- a monthly Social Security supplemental income check.
The homeless men who do not fit in or who choose to leave are driven to the nearest town, given a one-way bus ticket and lunch money, and sent home, Isabel said.
"We have had some violent people arriving. They stand out like a sore thumb," she said. "They start complaining immediately."
Mitch Snyder, head of the District's Community for Creative Non-Violence, said that many of the about 60 men who left for Oregon are young, violent types.
"They didn't have anything here," Snyder said. "These are the guys who are still searching for the end of the rainbow . . . . "