Downtown’s business boosters and homeless advocates are teaming up to provide homeless services. Will it mean open arms or open season?

James Staton holds forth about soap. It’s lunchtime on a recent Thursday, and Staton is one of five featured speakers at the Downtown Business Improvement District’s (BID) monthly lecture series on homelessness.

Today’s topic: panhandling.

Mr. Staton’s qualifications: He’s currently homeless.

Staton assesses the audience of about 35 from under a tan WWJD baseball cap. While he speaks from a long table at the front of the BID’s eighth-floor conference room, the listeners sit spread out along a series of desks spanning the room. They munch tuna fish sandwiches and look for all the world like a group of mid-career students at a school of public policy. Which, in a way, they are.

That’s because the Downtown BID has just launched a very unusual initiative, and the assembled are all here to learn the wonky details. On Sept. 15, the association officially opened a drop-in center for the homeless.

Staton, who is way off-topic, interrupts his talk to raise a complaint about the project: “I’m a 250-pound man,” he says, “and the tiny bars of soap, by the time I go to wrap it and put it down, it’s gone.”

The gripe is pretty small potatoes compared with what some critics expected a couple of years ago. When downtown’s real estate developers and property owners set up the BID, plenty of people surmised that the only drop-in center the organization would permit would feature a one-way tunnel to someplace like Pyongyang. Elsewhere, business groups out to transform run-down city centers have backed initiatives that move the homeless off the streets by criminalizing their behavior. In New York, for instance, stricter enforcement of anti-loitering, anti-panhandling, and anti-camping ordinances have frequently landed homeless and mentally ill people in jail.

“The BID started working with people sometime in 1997,” says the Rev. Linda Kaufman. “I wasn’t working downtown at that point—I was working in Mount Pleasant—and we were all very nervous. We’d heard about business, and we knew what business had done. We were concerned that once they got up and running they’d just be sweeping people out of downtown.” Kaufman heard about the job working as homeless coordinator, but she didn’t apply. “I wasn’t willing to sell out,” she says.

But BID officials insist that the Downtown Services Center (DSC), as the nonprofit is called, sits at the core of their initiative to help the homeless while spiffing up downtown. They say the BID is cleaning up the homeless by giving them a place to shower—and, as Staton noted, small bars of soap. And today, Kaufman is running the program, after taking over for a friend who quit the BID’s employ in order to teach yoga full-time.

Welcome to the next frontier in the movement toward private management of public needs. What the BID is building with the DSC lies beyond privatization, outsourcing, and public-private partnerships. Located in the First Congregational Church at 10th and G Streets NW, the center is a private-private partnership between traditionally hostile sectors.

A nonprofit corporation funded through a self-imposed tax on property, the BID oversees the management of public spaces within a 110-block area of downtown D.C. Its powerful board of directors—loaded with Washington’s real estate power players—gives it an unusual measure of clout.

It also enjoys unusual national prominence: Only two BIDs of some 1,000 nationwide oversee more square footage. Downtown BID Director Richard Bradley is a high-profile leader among private city planners across the country, having come to his post from a job as president of the International Downtown Association, the national BID clearinghouse and educational group.

All of these factors combine to make the Downtown BID one of the most closely watched in the country. If the BID can create a successful new private-sector model for providing homeless services, observers say, there’s a good chance it may be copied nationwide.

Kaufman hopes this will be the case—and not because she’s bucking to open up a new Rainforest Cafe downtown. “For the first time in my working with homeless people and issues, I have resources to do things with,” says Kaufman. “Having resources has made a big difference.”

The BID plowed $45,000 into installing new showers and washing machines at the church. Other private and public funds were leveraged to redo the kitchen and mess hall, where two food programs were already operating. Twenty partner providers were brought in to provide on-site medical care, drug treatment intake services, and on-site employment counseling and job training. So far, 74 people have been sent to detox through the BID, and 59 of them have followed the seven- to 10-day detox with longer-term residential drug treatment. The drug treatment facilities often charge indigent patients the nominal fee of $28 for four weeks, but if you don’t have any money, the BID will pay it for you.

If you ignore the fact that she’s talking about managing homeless people, Kaufman sounds positively like a real estate developer’s brochure as she assesses her program: “I believe this model can be replicated throughout the city,” she says. “It’s such a simple concept, what we’re doing here. To have everything in one place seems so logical once set up.”

DSC Chair Joe Sternlieb says the center’s original goal was to provide some place for the homeless, especially downtown’s homeless men, to go during the day. Shelters often close at 7 a.m., and there’s nowhere else for them to go to get off the street. Ironically, the BID initially found itself facing off against an array of resistant landlords and NIMBY opponents. “It became clear that nobody wanted a Downtown Services Center in their building,” says BID board member John Mack.

Sternlieb, whose main job is as a senior BID official, was used to looking at the NIMBY issues from the other side. And as a representative of the BID, he couldn’t very well complain when landlords worried that putting a homeless center near retail shops would kill the retail. After all, the whole point of the center was to help stimulate economic development, on the premise that fewer homeless people on the streets would make the neighborhood more appealing to visitors—and new retail shops.

But having corporate muscle on board also has a way of quelling neighborhood unease about a homeless-services center. During a brainstorming session one day, Mack, who is also the pastor of First Congregational, suggested that they use his church. Already, the Dinner Program for Homeless Women served a nightly meal there, and Zacchaeus Community Kitchen served a breakfast of soup. Both programs are now partnered with the BID’s program.

The BID spent $45,000 on its bathroom and laundry renovations and spends about $127,000 per year, 4.5 percent of its budget, on the DSC. And the church spent a total of $400,000 on renovations for its kitchen and other homeless-service facilities, $150,000 of which was public money, the rest raised from foundations. “They really helped us get the funding,” says Mack of his BID colleagues. “When there was big funding on the line and it was difficult to get the deal signed, having a stakeholder come along and clarify stuff helped folks see there was a real partnership that’s happening.”

Though they have different motives, church leaders like Mack and Kaufman share a basic goal with the BID’s corporate funders: that nobody should live on the street. The way they’ve approached this goal since the BID got into the homeless-services business, however, says a lot about the differences in their motivations—and about the different politics of 1990s corporate givers and veteran homeless advocates.

The culture clash is most pronounced at the center’s morning meal program. The program had long been staffed by volunteers from Olive Branch—an odd combination of formerly homeless Americans and mainly female European interns who work in the soup kitchen in exchange for room and board in a run-down house on M Street in Shaw. Olive Branch sees its mission as breaking down social barriers between homeless and nonhomeless. It also stages demonstrations. It has even picketed close BID allies.

Olive Branch volunteers say they’re losing control over their program and its nonjudgmental philosophy. The kitchen used to serve only soup, and it used donated food—volunteers cut the rotting edges off of otherwise usable vegetables. The BID brought in a paid executive chef to oversee both morning and evening meals. It coordinated a joint food-purchasing budget for the two programs. On a recent morning, it served fresh-baked bread pudding; eggs scrambled with onions, peppers, and cheese; sausage patties; gravy; oatmeal with raisins; fresh fruit cups; five different kinds of bread; juice; and—for old times’ sake—soup.

The BID instituted a no-drinking, no-smoking rule in the mess hall and made clients sign in and take numbers when they arrived. Three hundred to 400 clients are served per morning, called up for food in batches of 20.

While no one wants to go back to the old food, the no-smoking, no-drinking rule has caused a lot of griping among the clients. And the influx of paid professionals with institutional backing has led to tensions with some of the nearly destitute volunteers, who find the new challenge to their already marginal authority hard to swallow.

“We built this,” says chef and Olive Branch resident Eric Thomas. “We started it. But then the church and the BID came in and made changes and pushed us to the back. I don’t feel good about it. It’s not fair.”

Olive Branch wants to empower the homeless in the process of providing a social service. The BID wants results. “Our motto is ‘We make it happen,’” says DSC Executive Director Naaman Foster. “Six months ago you’d come here and fear for your life. There was smoke billowing everywhere….The part we brought in was the structure and organization.”

But that structure is more than some clients want. “If you breathe too hard, he asks you to leave,” says Rena, one of a pair of transgendered breakfast visitors to the center.

Rena’s dining partner, 33-year-old “Elyse” Montgomery, scoffs at the assertion. “It’s nice: It came a long way,” Montgomery says. “She don’t like that she can’t smoke and drink now. She don’t understand why she can’t bring her 40 in.”

“One way, I support what they’re doing,” says David Gatling, a homeless man who sleeps behind the Martin Luther King Jr. Library. “Another way, I don’t. I don’t think they ask enough what we need as homeless. They tell us what we need.”

That, some at the DSC would say, is exactly the point. Fifty-seven percent of those on the street in the District are either drug-addicted or mentally ill, according to BID data. Some at the DSC talk about certain clients as “recovering gangsters,” people who are not necessarily criminal but who are so alienated from traditional society that their whole mentality will have to change before they will be able to achieve independence.

Helping them, under the therapeutic model of treating homelessness, means drug treatment, mental health care, job training, behavior change, and re-socialization—all things that are philosophically antithetical to homeless groups formed in earlier eras, which focused exclusively on housing and considered such expectations paternalistic or patronizing. “We want it to be a meal program rather than a soup kitchen,” says Foster. “We don’t want the easy way—we want the effective way.” CP