District and federal officials have been meeting secretly for the past two months, trying to figure out a permanent solution to the problem of the homeless that does not make the street people's most clamorous advocate, White House nemesis Mitch Snyder, the central player.
Tentatively, a group representing the Health and Human Services Department, the District government and the congressional committees dealing with the District has decided to transform half a dozen abandoned school buildings into shelters to take up the slack when the Anacostia shelter for men and Snyder's Community for Creative Non-Violence building at Second and D streets are shut down on April 30. Snyder will be offered one building, and the care of 200 people.
Although the participants have taken a vow of silence, Snyder knows their plans. He finds them "unacceptable."
"If CCNV is good enough to be included in the final plan, why are they talking about spending $35 million to $40 million in five-year operating costs when they could renovate my building once for $6 million and and have it run at no cost at all to them?"
The renovation of the Second and D Street shelter became briefly an issue in the 1984 campaign. Snyder, who had fasted for weeks, started eating only after candidate Ronald Reagan promised to renovate the building and make it "a model shelter."
The agreement fell through amid much acrimony about the cost -- the administration said that Snyder's plans would cost $10 million and make his shelter so comfortable that nobody would ever leave it. Snyder lost a court suit to make Reagan keep his word, and last December, the administration announced that Second and D would be closed forever. With that loss of perspective that Snyder induces in bureaucrats, an HHS official vowed to carry out the eviction at gunpoint, if necessary. Sanity intervened, however, and a decision was made to open the Anacostia shelter and keep CCNV open through the winter.
But White House officials want CCNV out of existence. It is a symbol of the embarrassment and frustration it has experienced in dealing with someone who exemplifies its rhetoric about voluntarism and private sector charity, but who doesn't do it their way.
"They find him impossible to deal with," said one planner. "They think he is a fanatic, using unscrupulous tactics like civil disobedience and fasting, and they think he manipulates the press." Many private charities dealing with Snyder voice the same complaints. But they concede that he runs a good shelter and that he has forced the homelessness question onto the national agenda.
Solution group members knew they had to keep him in the picture because Snyder has a constituency -- including CBS, which is making a movie about him -- but they worked under the constraint of the White House anathema. They understood from the start that a supporting role was all the traffic would bear. It was one case where Gramm-Rudman-Hollings constraints were not overriding. "Even if he did it all for nothing, they wouldn't have him," said one secret planner.
Under the alternative plan, half a dozen District school buildings would revert to the government through the Defense Department. Defense would rent them to the District for a year and renovate them from discretionary funds in the Pentagon, and the Labor and Education Departments. It is the operating cost which makes the alternative look extravagant -- and spiteful.
Snyder, who puts up about 953 men and women a night during the winter, has never taken federal money. Because he has all-volunteer help, his costs are $10,000 a month. He says he has a firm bid for a $6 million renovation. Once the grubby premises are cleaned up, he has volunteer support services ready to go, he says.
The District is caught in the middle of the Reagan-Snyder confrontation, which is really about whether the nation's homeless are a federal or a local responsibility. District officials, despite federal reassurances, are anxious about getting out of the congressional District committees the $30 million required over the next five years to run the homeless program.
Snyder is currently fasting for "a change of heart" on the part of the administration, by which he means the government will put his building into habitable shape and let him run it.
The committee is talking about putting up $3.9 million in federal funds to start up the ABM (Anybody but Mitch) program. Nobody so far has talked about the exorbitant cost of excluding him.