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.

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.''

Cold weeks had dragged by as plans for the barracks shelter became ensnared by federal red tape. By mid-February the Georgetown Clergy Association had already collected nearly $4,000 from member churches, the citizens' association, and private donors. The city had approved use of the waterfront space, and all systems were go except the DOD barracks. Gerald Kauvar, director of installation planning at the DOD, said the Georgetown coalition's announcement was ''premature,'' and that the Defense Department had earlier ''promised to look into it. These things are not easy for the Department of Defense because of the limits of our authority.'' After several weeks, DOD lawyers had determined that it had the authority to lease the barracks to the coalition, but then said legal papers would have to be drawn up specifying that the Georgetown group would take responsibility for leasing and installing the barracks.

As it happened, no papers were signed because the original DOD offer had changed to four garden-shed-type buildings - without heating, plumbing, or foundations - which a local contractor estimated would take $60,000 to reassemble and install. Originally, Jim Hearn, director of the federal Task Force on the Homeless, had suggested that the Army might erect the DOD shelters.

''But the Army objected to erecting them because we are not a military installation, explains the Rev. Mr. Wegener of the Georgetown Clergy Association. ''We were misinformed, too, as to the design of the buildings. This was not going to be the Ritz, but this was going to be functional,'' he says of the original plan.

Faced with the prohibitive $60,000 cost of installing the changed buildings, and unable to pay it, the Georgetown coalition simply decided to do it themselves, before any more freezing nights went by. It took up a collection for more money, came up with enough altogether ($4,660) to rent the four white trailers from a Baltimore firm, and opened the shelter in late February. It will cost nearly $2,000 more to keep it open until April 1.

Georgetown Citizens' Association president Juan Cameron says of the need for the shelter and the delay caused by federal red tape: ''It's a disgrace. This is one of the holes in the safety net.''

But Mr. Hearn says, ''We all learned from this experience. We've now learned we've got to move faster (on shelters) because the community people move fast. The point is, there's hope,'' he says, for other communities who want to shelter their homeless.

He suggests that the Georgetown situation was complicated by the fact that the community wanted to open a shelter where no building already existed to house it. But his task force is already working now, he says, on setting up shelters to be opened in areas where buildings already exist: at Parks Army Base in Alameda County, Calif., for instance, and at an armory in Roxbury, Mass. In addition, he says, DOD has offered more than 600 of its sites as shelters as a result of a letter sent out by HHS Secretary Margaret Heckler last year asking for Cabinet assistance on the problem of the homeless.

The Rev. Mr. Wegener sums up: ''Our first purpose is to look after the homeless, but it has also pulled the community together and caused us to think about the future, about next winter. It's turned people's thinking away from being defensive about the homeless to realizing we are all our brother's keeper.''

And Mr. Snyder of the CCNV says, ''As long as one human being is allowed to go to bed at night hungry, or has no bed at all, we are not a civilized nation, when we are sitting on much of the wealth of the world.''

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