We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

The controversial cleanup on Capitol Hill seems to be bogging down, to the delight of foes who call it a cynical sham. No, it’s not Newt’s Contract, it’s the carwash controversy of Capitol South.

Hill residents initially welcomed the industrious homeless men who began appearing in spring 1994, offering to wash cars at reasonable rates. “We were all good little liberals at first, thinking it was great that these guys down on their luck were trying to earn a living instead of sitting around begging,” recalls one early customer. “We were rooting for them.”

For the past year, the washers and their big white plastic buckets have been a frequent sight in the neighborhood. Locals believed the situation was a vast improvement over the abundant panhandling that has historically characterized Capitol South, so relations between the community and the washers were exceedingly chummy to begin with. Residents supported washers by offering their spigots as well as their patronage, and one washer working Folger Park charmed members of a nearby health club to the point where they raised funds to help him make it through the winter. The trickle of car washers eventually swelled to a freshet, which—as it grew—got muddier.

Recently, neighborhood residents have complained that they are being cased by the car washers; they became suspicious after one meticulous soul ostensibly busied himself cleansing the same automobile from 6 a.m. until noon, and many others in the burgeoning car-cleaning corps began lingering well after dark to ply their trade. In one year, thefts from cars on the normally placid 100 block of North Carolina Avenue SE soared by 400 percent, according to a neighborhood-watch captain. Hapless owners of Hondas with built-in change holders repeatedly discovered that their windows had been broken for a booty as scanty as 30 cents. “I got hit five times before I put a sign in the window that said there was no change in the car,” says Carole, who declines to give her last name.

After a time, residents became suspicious that the same folks who cleaned their cars up were cleaning them out. Neighborhood resident John Pontious circulated a letter suggesting that the car washers might not be who they seemed to be.

“We cannot stress strongly enough that these men are not just individuals trying to earn a few dollars,” he wrote. “These men have long criminal records….For your own sake, do not hire these men to wash your car or do odd jobs.”

Neighborhood-watch participants met on Oct. 11 at the 1-D-1 Police Substation on E Street SE and poured out a bucketful of car-washer complaints, ranging from harassment of female passers-by and failure to perform prepaid washes to robbery and burglary. Newly assigned Capt. William P. McManus told those assembled that solicitation to wash cars is an illegality that will no longer be overlooked.

“No person may ask, beg, or solicit alms in exchange for protecting, watching, washing, cleaning, repairing, or painting a motor vehicle or bicycle while it is parked on a public street,” intones Section 22-3313 of the D.C. criminal code, which throws in begging on private property for good measure.

The more affluent western end of the neighborhood nearest the Capitol is a magnet for many of the Hill’s estimated 2,500-3,000 homeless, who occupy several large and small shelters in the area. Are they really to blame for the crime? “Every one [of the car washers] I ever ran through [the computer] for a criminal record has a criminal record,” says First District Sgt. G.R. Clearwater, adding that 90 percent of those arrested for burglary in the neighborhood list no fixed address. He says that burglaries have gone up “astronomically.”

The neighbors have started watching the washers. A building overseer named Vince, who declined to give his last name, squabbled with a car washer last week who took water from a resident’s hose, and he also tipped off a passing U.S. Capitol policeman about another car washer who ducked into a pedestrian alleyway behind 1st Street SE office buildings late one evening. When the washer emerged from the alley, police checked the bottom of his wash bucket and found a purse that had been reported stolen from a night cleaning woman working in an adjoining office complex. Vince says another recently arrested car washer had two outstanding warrants in his résumé and a packet of crack in his bucket.

Locals have been shutting off their spigots to curtail the water supply, but commuters to area office buildings remain largely oblivious, cheerily keeping the sedan shiners in business. Beat 24 Watch Chair Peter Waldron says the neighborhood is working to scrub the car washers out because what seems like good old-fashioned entrepreneurship may actually be an excuse to hang out and wait for opportunities to perpetrate. Some neighborhood zealots advocated photographing the car washers and developing a file on each, but for the time being, the watch groups have settled for handing out information detailing the laws against aggressive panhandling, soliciting for car washing, and like offenses. Block captains are circulating letters warning neighbors not to patronize individuals who may not be the bootstrap businesspeople they seem to be.

Do any of the car-wash crew match the neighborhood’s early illusion of industrious poor, trying to earn a living? The search for the good guys is challenging. “You might try Dave, down by the American Legion Post,” suggested Mike Smith, a neighborhood foot-patrol cop. “He seems to be a pretty good fellow.” Yet Dave wasn’t at his regular station last week. As it turns out, Lewis David O’Neill, aka Dave, was charged with stealing that 1st Street cleaning woman’s purse.

“We feel strongly that self-employment for homeless vets specifically and for homeless people generally can be a viable way to work out of poverty,” says Steve Chisholm, chief of staff of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans on Pennsylvania Avenue SE, which is located in the heart of carwash country. He cites the example of men in San Diego who graduated from car washing to high-class window washing; no longer homeless, today they whimsically don tuxedos to clean the display windows of trendy boutiques. So it can happen. Yet Chisholm himself, a Hill resident, has been hassled by overly aggressive purveyors of car cleanliness.

Neighborhood vigilance and the literalist law enforcement approach adopted by Capt. McManus already seem to be drying up business. Despite the pleasant weather late last week, car washers were as scarce as unicorns in the blocks nearest the Capitol. On Thursday, you could walk down Panhandler Alley—Pennsylvania Alley between 2nd and 4th Streets SE—without encountering a single solicitor.

What happens if the determined Hill residents succeed in driving off the car washers and their panhandler colleagues? “Oh, everything just moves around,” sighed a Southeast militant. “Probably they have lots of dirty cars up in Northwest.”