Those of us who opposed the D.C. shelter initiative could continue to argue that the ballot summary of this proposal was vague and misleading. But the results are in, and the voters made it clear that they want the city held responsible for sheltering its homeless. While a court challenge still may find this popular commitment of money to be a violation of appropriations authority, the government had best concentrate on coming up with the most reasonable, workable, fair -- and financially responsible -- answer it can.
As Mayor Barry, who opposed the measure, observed, the plight of the homeless stirs "human emotions even the best politician can't fight against." The job of the mayor and council is to interpret the language of the initiative in a reasonab, because right now it is a blank-check offer to provide people of any means a shelter even if they have one but can't "secure entry" to it or if "occupation" of it "would likely lead to violence from another occupant." We have a hunch that the preponderance of support for the initiative was meant to assist only those who have no shelter, can't afford one and seek protection from the elements.
The city currently provides some 750 shelter beds; officials estimate that as many as 15,000 people may be homeless. Council Chairman David A. Clarke, who supported the initiative, interprets it not as a requirement to build public housing for everybody or to provide complete mental health services, but rather to offer modest temporary accommodations.
It is significant that nothing in the language of this measure requires facilities to be open and ready immediately. First, within 30 days of the initiative's effective date, the mayor "shall take reasonable steps" to assess the number o homeless who seek shelter and determine what is available. Then, 30 days after this assessment, the mayor "shall take reasonable steps" to provide space.
In the meantime, those who pressed hardest for this initiative should be enlisted to help make it work: to join in specifying what might be done, what can't be done and what other approaches the city government and private organizations might take to lower the number of people without access to shelter. There does seem to be a mood of accommodation among those who favored and those who opposed the measure, and perhaps it can produce a response that really will make a difference.