WINTER is now so close there is no time left for debate or maneuver, and what the city has for the homeless is a last-best solution that can satisfy no one involved. The plan, cobbled together by federal officials and the D.C. Coalition for the Homeless, calls for busing people -- hundreds of them -- from the parts of downtown that they frequent all the way out to Anacostia Park each night. There a large federal building of World War II vintage, most recently used by the presidential inaugural committee, would serve as a temporary shelter. Federal officials would give $3.7 million -- $1 million more than they offered previously -- to the coalition to renovate and run that building while seeking out and renovating long-term shelter sites. Meanwhile, the federal government would reclaim the ramshackle federal building at Second and D streets NW, where the Community for Creative Non-Violence has been running a shelter. The CCNV shelter, source of so much controversy over the last two years, would be shut down.
A plan that calls for busing large numbers of homeless people on a regular basis to a relatively distant shelter seems awkward and dubious at best. There are far better solutions to housing the roughly 600 people now at the Second and D building. Several such solutions have been proposed. For indefensible reasons none has been allowed to stand.
One solution might have been to renovate the Second and D building. But that would have required a compromise that neither Mitch Snyder of CCNV nor his federal landlords could bring themselves to make. He held out for a more elaborate plan, they for a lesser one, and their spat took on a life of its own. They ended in court.
The federal officials then offered the $2.7 million they had planned to put into Second and D to the District government to help find alternative shelter for the homeless. That was a better idea. Sheltering the homeless is a municipal responsibility, not a federal one. But Mayor Marion Barry twice turned his back on his responsibilities, first refusing to use the city's expertise in seeking alternative sites and then refusing the next federal plan, worked out with the coalition, to house the homeless temporarily in trailers.
Housing the homeless is always an uneven and imperfect business. The new plan may have even more than its share of flaws. It needs to be remembered that both Mr. Snyder and Mayor Barry have had ample opportunities to support efforts that would probably work better. The near-indifference of the mayor toward the homeless, the most forlorn people in his city, is scandalous. Mr. Snyder's theatrics now include statements that steel bars and steel plates have been placed on the CCNV shelter and that the homeless people have the right to fight to stay there.
What they have is a moral right to have shelter. As the winter approaches, the idea to use the Anacostia Park building for shelter seems, sadly, to be the only solution left.