THE CITY was moved last week when it became known that a homeless man who froze to death in Lafayette Park had been a war hero. Jesse L. Carpenter had won a Bronze Star for valor 40 years ago, but his life fell apart when he returned from the war, perhaps in part because of the stress of his battlefield experiences. He became an alcoholic, left his family many years ago and had no home or job. But his former wife wants others to know that he was brave and good as a young man.
It is right that we learn that each of the homeless has a personal history, sometimes even an illustrious one, and that each at some point in his life was loved and cherished. This understanding, as Mitch Snyder reminds us, makes it less likely that we will shun the homeless as a group and ignore their needs.
It was not the fault of the society that Jesse Carpenter lived on the streets -- for 22 years -- and died in the cold. He was receiving a tax-free veteran's disability pension of $459 a month and was eligible for free VA medical care. There are shelters in the city that could have accommodated him and his wheelchair-bound friend if they had sought assistance. But the problem has yet to be solved of how to help those in need who specifically reject that help. Many believe that street people should be free to make a choice about accepting shelter. But there is growing support for the position, recently endorsed by the American Psychiatric Association, that those not capable of caring for themselves must be cared for even against their will.
Last week, two foundations announced major grants to provide medical and social services to the homeless under conditions designed to appeal even to those most reluctant to seek help. The Pew Memorial Trust and the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation will provide $25 million to the 18 pilot cities over the next four years. Washington will use its $1.3 million to establish health clinics in shelters and to enable medical teams to visit the city's 12 soup kitchens and six drop-in centers.
The availability of these services might or might not have helped Mr. Carpenter, but certainly they will help many others. One of the sponsors neatly cut through questions of blame and the possible futility of any action. 'We don't want to get into the political question of who is responsible for the plight of the homeless," said Drew Altman, vice president of the Johnson Foundation. "All we know is that people are suffering and we have an obligation to help them."