- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 25, 2000

Crack heads and heroin junkies do it all the time sniff out abandoned houses, apartment buildings and storefronts, slip through the back or side entrance, and essentially turn the property into a "smoke den" or "shooting gallery." Police are usually clueless until residents or the media bring the situation to their attention, as they did last week. Only the lawbreakers weren't drug addicts. These squatters called themselves housing advocates, but they were lawbreakers nonetheless and the Williams administration did the right thing by arresting the loosely knit band of squatters.

The advocates collectively call themselves "Homes Not Jails," and they actually thought they were do-gooders. What they did was sniff out an abandoned rowhouse on Sherman Avenue NW in Columbia Heights, invite themselves in, and begin fixing up the joint. The owner of the house could not himself complain because he was out of the country. Besides, the fact that he has not paid his property taxes in several years is a pretty good indication of where his interests do not lie.

Fortunately, concerned neighbors felt otherwise. After complaining to the city for some time, the house was boarded up as a nuisance and abandoned property. Things were going fairly well until July 19, when neighbors noticed the advocates had begun illegally squatting. They contacted the media, and the media drew the attention of housing and law enforcement authorities, who, on July 21, declared the house unsafe and ordered the squatters to vacate. Those who failed to follow orders were hauled off to jail, charged with a misdemeanor (illegal presence) and fined $25. Residents cheered.

That, however, is not the end of the story. The activists say they merely want to fix up the Sherman Avenue house for homeless folks, and they say there are other houses in the city they want to squat in and claim on behalf of the less fortunate. D.C. Council member Jim Graham, who represents Columbia Heights, has egged them on by telling them "they would've made a better point" had they chosen government-owned property. Howard University's radio station, WHUR-FM, gave them a platform on which to stand, too. The evening after the confrontation with police and fire officials the station allowed an activist to go on air and inform listeners about how to help them plot similar strong-arm tactics in the future.

Without doubt the poor deserve housing and the city has a measure of obligation to help them. But the city must not go soft on lawbreakers and, most important, the city must not forsake property owners on behalf of lawbreakers, whether they are junkies or so-called housing activists who demand anything.

During his many meetings and forums with various neighborhood groups, Mayor Williams promised to make more housing available to the working poor, and the District subsidizes several programs to help them, including temporary shelters, housing auctions and programs that aid in down payments and renovations. But trespassing and squatting? Absolutely not.

Mitch Snyder, rest his activist soul, brought considerable national attention to the plight of the homeless in the 1970s. However, the homeless problem is not as acute as many would have you believe. And, if the city allows advocates to have their way, who is to stop dope fiends from doing the same?

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