Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

House the Homeless in Unused City Space

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

House the Homeless in Unused City Space

Article excerpt

MITCH SNYDER, the late advocate for homeless people, once launched a crusade to turn part of the Capitol Building in Washington into a shelter. He went from one congressional office to the next, speaking with whomever would listen.

The Capitol has a spacious rotunda, he said. It is warm, dry, and totally empty at night, except for the guards. The taxpayers are already paying for the space, Snyder said. So why not take this architectural artifact and turn it into a showcase of humane concern?

I was working on a congressional staff at the time, and Snyder made his pitch to me. Steeped in the culture of Capitol Hill, I urged him to be politic and practical. Congress would never turn its precious rotunda into a shelter, I said. But there was lots of other space on the Hill, such as the network of tunnels connecting the congressional buildings. Push for one of those, and you just might get someplace, I told him. Snyder didn't speak the language of politics and compromise, however. He knew his mission was quixotic. But he had a point to make and the rotunda - a symbol of Washington gentility - helped to ram it home.

There was lots of space in America that could provide shelter, as there still is today. People were sleeping in cardboard boxes and on heat grates while this space went to waste. Couldn't somebody put two and two together?

I thought of this a few nights ago as I walked through Lower Manhattan to the subway. It was very late and very, very cold. The gray buildings of the financial district were shut up like vaults. Aside from a few all-night delis, the only place of shelter and warmth was the World Trade Center's underground mall that leads to the subway terminus there.

By day the mall bustles with stockbrokers and secretaries. But now, after midnight, it had turned into a shelter. Men were stretched out in shop doorways and along the walls. The subway train had become a kind of rolling motel. I should have expected it, but still the sight stunned me. I felt as though I had walked into somebody's bedroom.

Like most New Yorkers, I often see tabloid headlines of grim subway assaults, and these hovered over my mind as I took a seat. …

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