They read and slept beneath the dim light of brass chandeliers, yawned and slumped against government agency doors, and paced polished marble floors with muddy boots and weary stares. More than 50 men came in from the cold last night, soaked up splendor, and called city hall home.
Within hours after the D.C. Council unanimously passed legislation opening the ground floor of the District Building to the homeless, officials and volunteers had spread about 50 canvas cots in a blocklong hallway. By 9:30 p.m., all the beds were full.
"It seems things have turned out very well," said Marjorie Hall-Ellis, comissioner of D.C. Department of Social Services, shortly after 10 p.m. "All the men who have come here have been very orderly and quiet."
A few of the men who trudged into the building, though, left quietly after arriving, mumbling that they did not want to try to rest in a hall crowded with officials, police officers and television cameras.
Everyone who entered the building was required to walk through a metal detector. They also were asked to place possessions -- usually no more than a few dirty blankets -- on a conveyor belt for a brief security screening.
"Yeah, I think some guys are surprised to be resting in a place like this," said a man in his twenties, lying on a cot outside the D.C. Office of Elections and Ethics and reading a tattered copy of "The Fox and the Hound." "But they're just glad to have a place to stay and sleep for a while" and not have to fight the weather.
Most of the men were brought to the District Building from other crowded city shelters after 8 p.m. Some said word of new shelter spread quickly on the street.
"I was over by the Salvation Army truck that comes around to feed street people, and somebody was telling everybody we could come here tonight," said a man in his forties. "I've been staying around in a few other shelters, but, man, they can be snake pits -- no security, no sanitary conditions. I figured I'd be safe and warm here."
As the beds filled, late-working bureaucrats walked briskly from elevators flanked by homeless men. Some officials paused to ask questions. "How are we doing? Are we full?" a man asked D.C. Council Chairman David A. Clarke. Clarke, who introduced yesterday's emergency legislation, mingled in the crowded District Building hallway for about an hour.
As a bearded man wearing four coats played a harmonica a few feet away, Clarke paused and stared at the dozens of cots before him. "It's a start," he said. "We've got to say on nights like this that we'll open our buildings and keep people warm."
Homeless advocate Mitch Snyder arrived about 9 p.m., walking up and down halls and asking who needed what.
"Don't make this a one-time shot, please don't make this a one-time shot," Snyder told some officials. "We really need to know this space is here."
Shortly before 11 p.m., dozens of thermal blankets were brought into the hall. Some of the men rose from their cots and scratched their chins as they watched, seeming not to believe the attention they were receiving.
"It doesn't matter how much stuff we bring them," one volunteer said to another. "All these poor guys want is a place to lay their heads, and not freeze."