When Federal officials announced, last winter, a plan to give $3.7 million to the D.C. Coalition for the Homeless to open an emergency shelter in Anacostia Park, there were misgivings. But 600 homeless people were sheltered in terrible conditions at the Second Street shelter run by the Community for Creative Non- Violence. There was no compromise between federal officials, who said they would turn the CCNV shelter into a model facility, and CCNV's Mitch Snyder. Mayor Marion Barry refused to assume responsibility.
It was under these choiceless circumstances that the plan to put the Coalition in charge of the new shelter seemed like a good idea. Now we have reports that Coalition staff members attacked some homeless people. There are police and FBI investigations into the use of that $3.7 million by some members of the Coalition's board of directors.
Coalition president Elisabeth Huguenin says the staff member arrested on a charge of hitting a homeless person with a baseball bat has been fired. She says that a criminal record check will now be run on staff members. Miss Huguenin says all other disturbances were fights among homeless people, but this is hardly reassuring. It highlights the fact that a shelter for more than 400 people cannot be safely controlled. A homeless man was stabbed to death in the CCNV shelter in March; two others at the shelter were arrested and charged with second degree murder while armed. Smaller, more easily controlled shelters are the only answer.
It was also unwise to put $3.7 million in the hands of a group whose budget normally amounts to no more than a few thousand dollars, without providing better oversight for the use of those funds. There is the question of a $1,000 payment to former coalition board member Dennis Bethea from a contractor doing business with the coalition. Miss Huguenin says Mr. Bethea has given the money back and resigned from the coalition. Also being investigated is a real estate deal negotiated by a coalition board member in which $21,000 was paid to a D.C. policeman for rent on a building the officer did not even own. The coalition did not even have its own lawyer at the time of that deal. Miss Huguenin says they have a lawyer now. The coalition has much more housecleaning to do.
The homeless need smaller, safer shelters where violence is swiftly suppressed. They need competent direction from the Coalition, which has not proven that it is up to the job of running shelters for 400 to 600 people, and from Mr. Snyder, whose intransigence helped create this situation. Mayor Barry ought to shoulder his responsibility. Perhaps then the embarrassments of the past winter could be corrected -- by the time the cold weather arrives again.