For nearly a year the goal of finding adequate shelter for the District's homeless people has been sidetracked by an escalating war of wills between Mitch Snyder's Community for Creative Non-Violence and the Reagan administration. Now a federal court decision and a series of informal meetings between federal and District officials may have finally broken the logjam.
It began two years ago when Mr. Snyder got permission to use a vacant building at Second and D streets NW as a shelter. Even then the structure was in poor condition. Mr. Snyder asked the government to renovate it last year, then went on a hunger strike when the government refused.
On the weekend before Election Day, federal officials said that President Reagan agreed to make the building "a model physical shelter," and Mr. Snyder ended his 50-day fast. But it was a flimsy agreement at best. Disputes arose over what constituted a "model" facility as living conditions at the shelter went from marginal to deplorable.
Mr. Snyder wanted a $10 million facility that, among other things, would have given homeless people their own private rooms. Federal officials stuck with an offer of $2.7 million, an amount that was probably too small to make the building safe, much less a model. Citing Mr. Snyder's "intransigence," federal officials said they would close the shelter and offered the $2.7 million to the District government to help it find accommodations for the 600 homeless people at the shelter. Mr. Snyder sued in federal court, arguing that the government had a legal and constitutional obligation to do things his way.
U.S. District Judge Charles Richey has justifiably thrown out the suit, but he softened his ruling with the rather grandiose stipulation that the federal government cannot reclaim its building without developing "interim and long-range plans to eliminate homelessness in the Nation's Capital." Going further, Judge Richey rightfully implored the District government, which had simply sat on the sidelines during this fracas, to take up its moral responsibility in finding shelter for those homeless people with the $2.7 million offered by federal officials. That is the right thing to do. This is not a federal issue, nor is it a situation that Mr. Snyder should control.
Currently, District officials are meeting with their federal counterparts and have the help of the D.C. Coalition for the Homeless. They are studying other sites for smaller, more manageable facilities and finding available space in existing shelters. That is the sensible course. Mr. Snyder will appeal the court's ruling, and Mayor Barry says he will try to stay out of the dispute, but those are not the issues of consequence. Winter is approaching. Adequate shelter must be found. Those are the issues.