D.C. City Council Chairman David A. Clarke asked Mayor Marion Barry yesterday to require city police officers to forcibly take homeless people to shelters if they refuse to come in from the cold and to drop his legal objections to an initiative approved by voters last November that guarantees residents a right to shelter.
In a letter to Barry, Clarke also asked that the mayor spend $200,000 for emergency repairs to a large shelter operated by the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV) at Second and D streets NW in an attempt to persuade federal officials to put off their announced plans to close the shelter.
The issue of forced removal received renewed attention after two apparently homeless men were found dead in District streets Thursday -- one at 5 a.m. at North Capitol Street and Florida Avenue NW and the other at 9:40 a.m. at 18th Street and Massachusetts Avenue SE. As of late yesterday, the two had not been identified, according to the D.C. medical examiner's office. Several city officials expressed surprise at the deaths, noting that many beds are vacant in city and federal shelters.
Those vacancies may end, however, if federal officials follow through on their promise to close the CCNV shelter at 425 Second Street NW, which housed 715 men and women Thursday night, according Mitch Snyder, director of CCNV.
C. McClain Haddow, an adviser in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services handling the issue, said yesterday that the shelter would be closed "in a few days."
Haddow, who was chief of staff to former HHS secretary Margaret Heckler, said there are enough vacant beds to move the men and women in the shelter, which is being run by CCNV in defiance of a U.S. District Court order that the building is not a fit place to live.
"They are trespassing illegally," said Haddow. "It's a firetrap over there . . . . No one wanted to close it down in the Christmas week, but enough is enough. There is absolutely no reprieve until spring."
Haddow said the shelter's occupants will be arrested by federal officers and carried out of the building if they refuse to leave. "The doors in that building have been welded shut except for one entrance and exit," he said. "It's a deathtrap and every day we say a prayer that we get through it without a massive tragedy there."
He said he suspects that residents of the shelter have weapons and that violence could take place when the government finally closes the shelter.
Dixon Arnett, a deputy undersecretary of HHS, said the shelter will be closed shortly and "a bed with services and food will be provided for every human being in the city."
The federal government opened two shelters for the homeless last month in Anacostia that are expected to house the majority of those now staying at the CCNV shelter. Others are expected to be taken to city and private shelters throughout the District.
There is widespread disagreement over the demand for and supply of beds. A U.S. judge, citing government figures of existing and planned beds, ruled that it would be possible to close the CCNV shelter.
But Snyder said there were not enough vacant beds in the city to accommodate the 637 men and 78 women he said slept in his shelter Thursday night. "These 700 folks may be here illegally, but it's better than being dead," Synder said.
Snyder added, "All of the talk of guns and violence in a takeover of this building has been by the federal government . . . . I don't believe the White House will allow that disaster to take place."
Federal officials said their decision to close the shelter would not be swayed if the city spent money to improve the rundown building.
Dwight Cropp, an aide to the mayor, said, "We would not put $200,000 into a building that the federal government is going to phase out anyway."
The large number of homeless people in the District has become a highly sensitive political issue as the mayor and several City Council members prepare for reelection campaigns in 1986. Clarke's request that the mayor abandon his opposition to the voter-passed initiative favoring shelter for all is "under consideration," according to Cropp.
A trial court agreed with the mayor that the initiative was not legally binding on the city, as citizens cannot initiate a measure that would require the city to appropriate funds to accomplish it. The lower court ruling is being appealed.
Clarke's proposal to use police to force homeless people into shelters duplicates one made nearly a year ago by council member John Wilson (D-Ward 2).
Cropp said the District, like New York City, already has the power to remove people from the streets to a hospital for examination and that a new policy may not be needed.
The D.C. Hospitalization of the Mentally Ill Act allows city authorities to remove individuals to a hospital for observation for up to 48 hours, Cropp said.
"We're sending out vans every night," he said. "Those who want to come, come voluntarily. We have not invoked the law allowing mental examinations."
By contrast, New York City authorities forcibly moved 50 street people to hospitals Thursday night.
D.C. authorities could not say yesterday whether the two men who died in separate locations had been asked to move to a shelter. Vans operated by CCNV, the city government and the federal government patrol the streets day and night searching for homeless people.
"Our city shelters aren't full," said Cropp.
A warm front that moved into the area yesterday is expected to remain until Tuesday night, when temperatures will again drop below freezing, according to the National Weather Service.