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Not in Their Back Yard : Liberal Idealism, Political Reality of Homelessness Collide in the Capital


WASHINGTON — They crop up like weeds, these Not In My Back Yard battles.

The neighbors don't want that garbage dump nearby, nor the home for the retarded on the cul-de-sac. They'll destroy property values, opponents argue; they're dirty, dangerous, a magnet for crime and outsiders.

The District of Columbia is slugging out a vintage NIMBY. At issue is a homeless shelter that the city wants to open half a mile from Vice President Dan Quayle's house, in a political district known as Ward 3. It's the only ward that doesn't have one--and the only one that is overwhelmingly white and affluent.

Most of the neighbors are fighting it with everything they have--lawsuits, political clout, angry letters to the editor. The rest of the city is smirking at infuriated liberals getting a taste of their own idealism.

For new Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon, it is an unwinnable fight that has ugly racial and political overtones. The mayor, who is African American, owes a big political debt to the white voters of Ward 3. But if she does not put a shelter somewhere in the area, she will outrage residents of other parts of this predominantly black city who live with similar facilities.

"The mayor is committed to putting a shelter there, and it has to do with more than fairness and equity," says Vincent Gray, the commissioner in charge of homelessness and other social problems.

Another top aide is more candid: "The white big shots are going to have face this problem, too."

Yet despite a temptation to cast the fray as white versus black, rich versus poor, selfish versus compassionate, it is more complicated.

The struggle in the capital's back yard is about a city that seven years ago took a uniquely progressive step toward helping its homeless, estimated at 10,000 to 15,000, and failed to live up to its promise.

It's about people who live near the shelters and whose compassion is spent and who are asking why those rooted in a neighborhood should welcome the rootless to pass through.

It's also about the shelters' spiraling costs, which have quadrupled since 1984, when voters approved an open-door policy for the homeless. Today those dollars buy overnight accommodations--vast, impersonal halls crammed with cots or dirty mattresses--that nobody likes, least of all the down and out who are expected to stay there.

And the struggle magnifies an uncomfortable reality: that a social problem deemed an "emergency" a decade ago has become permanent across America, including here, where policy makers are sometimes expected to set an example--even though they often don't.

Whether they support or reject the plan for a shelter, the people of Ward 3 do agree on some things. They are uniformly disappointed that the District did not query them before proposing the site in this near-suburb just north of Georgetown. The lawyers, congressional aides and white-collar bureaucrats who make up the pristine neighborhoods also profess that they might have helped the city if it had suggested an "appropriate" setting to develop family-type quarters for the homeless, along with plenty of counseling.

Defining appropriate , however, is where the conviviality stopped.

Sophia Henry has lived in the Glover Park neighborhood in Ward 3 for 27 years. Her real estate agency is just across Wisconsin Avenue from the Guy Mason Recreation Center, where the shelter is proposed; in her view, it is not an appropriate site.

"This is the only adult center in Northwest Washington," Henry argues. "It is used constantly by people from all over the city. Once the summer softball season starts, there is always someone on the field."

Most of the center's activities, like pottery and folk dancing classes and lectures for the elderly, are scheduled for late afternoon and early evening--just about when homeless men would be trooping in if the spot became an overnight shelter.

Henry says she cannot understand why the city would want to bus in about 50 men without guaranteeing that they would be bused back to where they came from. (It is unclear whether the city intends to bus homeless to the shelter, rather than let it be used exclusively by those who live along nearby commercial corridors.)

"I realize many of them are quite harmless, but some could be threatening," Henry adds. "And what if they stay here during the day? Then they'll want to use the public bathrooms, and they'll end up sleeping in the park. I haven't heard of one neighborhood in Washington that wants this."

Henry suggests that the city bus these "poor souls" to Army camps that the Defense Department has been considering closing. She cannot say whether there is one close by.

"As citizens," she says, "we go to battle against all kinds of things to protect our neighborhood. . . . We're in the middle of a fight with Georgetown University over a (generating station) they want to erect on campus. And now this."

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