Thursday, October 16

SWAMPOODLE REPORT: WHEN DC CARED MORE ABOUT THE HOMELESS

When D.C. officials temporarily opened the District Building to the homeless during last week's bitter cold weather, the compassionate move made national news. Mayor Marion Barry stood before television cameras last Tuesday and said, 'While it's cold, a warm building is better than a grate.'

Behind the scenes, however, the move came close to creating a public relations nightmare because city officials, citing logistical problems, later told advocates for the homeless that the building would be open only one night.

Advocate for the homeless Mitch Snyder threatened promptly to 'march on the District Building' in protest the next day, according to one city official. Barry then ordered aides to keep the building open two more nights-long enough to indicate that the symbolic move to help the homeless was also meaningful. . .

Aides to the mayor confirmed yesterday that some officials were concerned that the crowd of homeless people-about 50 to 60 each night-had created access problems for the officials who use the building. The District Building houses the mayor's office, the D.C. Council and other high-level city offices.

"There were some concerns raised about the continued use of the building," said John C. White, the mayor's press secretary, "but the mayor overrode that because the mayor thought it was important . . . that the homeless were afforded shelter at the seat of government.". . .

Homeless persons and families who cannot get into the city's regular shelters, which often are full, are being taken to the Randall School at First and I streets SW, a converted school building used for government offices that can accommodate up to 200 persons, Streeter said. A bus has been stationed outside the District Building from 5 p.m. until 1 a.m. each night to take homeless people to other shelters.

Barry opened the public buildings to the homeless after the council enacted emergency legislation introduced by Council Chairman David A. Clarke, who had proposed that the city use the expansive D.C. Armory near RFK Stadium. Although Barry and his aides had initially been critical of Clarke's idea, they moved quickly to have the mayor sign the bill and then take credit for opening up the city's principal public building.
I can't recall how many nights the District Building was used, but I do remember the stunning sight of the long first floor corridor off of 13 1/2 Street filled with bunks that were set up late in the day and removed the next morning. It wasn't enough, but one can't imagine Fenty or the current council doing anything remotely similar.

The beds came back the next winter and that was the end of it, as reported by the Post on Christmas Day, 1989


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