The Washington Post
January 12,1986

The Homeless
Should they be forced in from the cold?
'Survival On the Streets Is a Challenge'

Insiders live inside and collect property. Outsiders live outside and give property away. Most outsiders have tried indoor living. They'd rather breathe free.

Some people—D.C. Council Chairman Dave Clarke and Council member John Wilson, for instance—are insiders recommending that outsiders be forced into shelters when the temperature dips below freezing.

The outsiders wish the insiders wouldn't do that. They're already busy enough finding privacy, warmth, a place to stash their stuff while they work at an infinite variety of projects.

If Council member Wilson's bill passes, they say they'll go into hiding.

At least some of them. Some, such as the homeless anti-nuke demonstrators in Lafayette Park, won't. And some can't. Take, for example, Jess, the invalid heart patient I know. Three weeks after open-heart surgery he was released from D.C. General Hospital onto a bench in Lafayette Park. Now he's back in the hospital. He doesn't know that his wife, Barbara, died last week, evidently from overexposure. (Their buddy Jessie Carpenter, also died last year of overexposure.) Barbara and her husband wouldn't have gone to the shelters for anything except a bath or an emergency. None of the shelters take couples.

"Why have the heat grates been covered over with heavy locked metal cages?" I heard Barbara ask before she died. Jess couldn't answer.

Surviving on the streets in the winter is a challenge. Survival takes creativity, a sense of humor and a sense of perspective. Anyone who takes the time to observe the habits of the street community will be amazed at its complexity. It's the women, like Barbara, who civilize the streets.

It is immoral, as well as unconstitutional, say the outsiders, to think the problem of homelessness will be solved by forcing people inside against their will, under threat of violence, or by a stay in a "hospital" or jail if they're brazen enough to speak out against such treatment to the wrong person at the wrong time.

Wilson's "humanitarian" bill would have the effect of making life even more difficult for a lot of people. Not only would the homeless suffer further indignities at the hands of law enforcement officials—police get grumpy about enforcing "victimless crimes"—but the shelters are notoriously crowded, as are the hospitals and jails. Where would they put 6,500 people?

"You wouldn't get me into a shelter if you paid me" is an oft-repeated streetism. "Sleep with all those bugs?"

Fortunately, Mayor Barry has recently recognized the rights of the impoverished independent. He stuck up for hardy homeless folks last week when he said that, unlike New York Mayor Ed Koch, he would refuse to endorse police-state tactics, even for humanitarian reasons."

And he promised to put the city's resources where his mouth is. He says he'll provide vans to pick up any who wants to go into a shelter and blankets and warm clothing for veteran outsiders who opt to continue living outdoors. A most practical idea.

Here are a few more:

Large lockers in well-lit public spots where homeless people can stash their belongings.

Public restrooms with washers, dryers and showers, well designed to stand up to the rigors of frequent use, open 24 hours a day so people aren't forced to soil alleys, or to stink.

Free bus transportation for those who can't afford to pay.

City tax breaks or other encouragement to restaurants and grocery stores that give their surplus away, rather than toss it into filthy dumpsters for hungry people to dig through.

An "adopt a homeless person" campaign, particularly among churches, encouraging people to provide sanctuary and practical aid to the homeless human beings currently "cluttering" D.C. sidewalks—people some public officials seem so anxious to get out of sight . . . and out of mind?

Ellen Thomas lives on the streets and is editor of the Home News, a newspaper written by the homeless