Nights are warmer now for homeless in affluent Georgetown
A rose-and-indigo sunset slipped into the Potomac River as a small group gathered on the Georgetown waterfront to dedicate their prayers and four rented trailers to the homeless.Skip to next paragraph
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The Georgetown shelter for its homeless street people had finally opened on a freezing winter night as a result of two months of united effort by a caring community. Its unique amalgam of private and public groups could serve as a prototype for other communities across the United States, because this coalition for the homeless includes the Georgetown Clergy Association and its 10 member churches, the nonprofit Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV), the Georgetown Civic Association, the Advisory Neighborhood Council, Washington Mayor Marion Barry's office of community services, the US Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) Task Force on the Homeless. It also initially involved Defense Department (DOD), which had volunteered to lease metal barracks for the shelter.
The shelter opened with a dedication prayer from the Rev. William Wegener, pastor of Georgetown Lutheran Church and president of the Georgetown Clergy Association, which helped spearhead the project. Then Mayor Barry (D) followed, saying, ''This is what I call sharing a community responsibility: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked.''
The site of the shelter, on a black asphalt parking lot formerly used by the city for impounded cars, looked like a Hollywood premiere. Huge television klieg lights shown down on the four white aluminum trailers set up on cement blocks to house 50 homeless men. Inside the trailers were olive-canvas and metal Army cots with wool blankets. No sheets, curtains, or shades. Each trailer contained a bathroom with wash basin and toilet but no showers. One of the trailers held a few chairs, a small black-and-white TV set propped on cement blocks, and an area for serving meals via a mobile soup kitchen operated by a clergy association and the Salvation Army.
''It sure beats sleeping in the cold,'' said Richard Phegn, a member of CCNV, which staffs the night shelter, as he carried in armloads of warm clothing. Many of the area's homeless bundle up in newspapers, cardboard boxes, and plastic bags against the cold. Georgetown citizens have seen the homeless, estimated to be between 50 and 100, sleeping in alleys, shop entrances, doorways outside the Georgetown Public Library, under the Francis Scott Key Bridge near the shelter site.
Behind the rented trailers, with their imitation wood paneling and linoleum floors, rose the red-brick skyline of expensive new condos and office space. They are part of Georgetown's historic community, which has a high concentration of affluent and powerful citizens. Last year, members of the community were shocked to read of the death of a familiar figure around town, a bearded, homeless older man known only as Freddy. Freddy had died of exposure after spending a subfreezing night in a phone booth on Bank Street. He was one of last year's street casualties; this year, seven of the homeless in Washington have died of exposure. At Christmas, CCNV spokesman Mitch Snyder came to both the Georgetown clergy and citizen association, which agreed to set up a shelter. (The city had just opened a 1,000-bed shelter, backed with government and private aid, at a converted Federal City College building in downtown Washington to be staffed by CCNV).
By mid-January the coalition behind the Georgetown shelter held a press conference to announce it expected to open a 50-bed Georgetown shelter at the end of January, with the promise of four modular, metal barracks containing complete plumbing, heating, and kitchen facilities to be leased by the DOD to the group. Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, in a letter to HHS, had promised the buildings himself. But the buildings, which were being sent from Utah, hadn't arrived by Jan. 31. On that day President Reagan, in an interview on ABC's ''Good Morning America,'' made news when he spoke of ''the homeless who are homeless, you might say, by choice.''