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By Karlyn Barker and Eric Pianin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 4, 1987 ; Page B01

Correction: A member of Congress was misidentified in the article about the "Grate American Sleep-Out" in yesterday's Style section. He is Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). (Published 3/4/87)

Hollywood actors and Washington politicians took to the streets -- or rather grates -- of the nation's capital last night to show their concern for homeless people who have to worry about finding shelter all the time.

Actor Martin Sheen, who helped organize the "Grate American Sleep-Out" with homeless advocate Mitch Snyder, said he and other celebrities were there "in solidarity" with the homeless in an effort to drum up congressional support for a package of emergency aid for them.

"The homeless are dying before their time, inch by inch, day by day," said Sheen, his voice hoarse from a long day of interviews and congressional meetings. "They are scrambling and scraping as best they can to survive, but they are not doing a very good job of it because they're also dying."

Reporters and TV crews were doing their own share of scrambling and scraping last night as Sheen, actors Dennis Quaid and Brian Dennehy, Reps. Joseph Kennedy II (D-Mass.), John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Mickey Leland (D-Tex.) and D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, among others, settled in on a not-so-large grate at Second Street and Independence Avenue SE.

The grate, behind the Library of Congress, is Snyder's regular sleeping spot during the winter, according to a spokeswoman for Snyder's group, the Community for Creative Non-Violence.

But that didn't stop the surly remarks of a few who tried to share the warm spot and the spotlight -- and were turned away.

"That's the celebrity grate, buddy, we don't rate that one," shouted one man, shivering at the outer edges of the news media circle that surrounded Snyder and the others.

In addition to celebrities and politicians, other advocates for the homeless slept outside last night, staking out space on the ground for their sleeping bags and huddling together in temperatures that dropped to the twenties.

Though one bystander said he would be more impressed if the "celebs" spent a week or a month on the streets -- "Now that would mean something" -- the newest grate people shrugged off such criticism.

"What we're doing tonight is just the beginning," said Conyers, who sat and gave interviews at one corner of the grate. "Far more important than the celebrity tone of this is the fact that this is the most definite statement for the least of the least that's ever been made."

Barry, wearing a sweater and overcoat -- and later, when it was time for bed, a wool cap -- and sandwiched between Conyers and Dennehy, said he hoped the sleep-out would "sensitize Congress to the plight of people who have to sleep out here every night."

Barry also said there was no need for organizers and participants of the event to apologize for focusing on celebrities.

"In the civil rights movement it helped for celebrities and movie stars to come to Alabama and Mississippi in 1964," Barry said. "People like us can serve that kind of role."

Quaid, in town filming the movie "Suspect," said he had joined the "Sleep-Out" because he wanted to help the homeless and because he wanted to learn more about their problems.

"You live on the streets and you start to smell a bit, and people don't want to put up with it," said Quaid, who dismissed the notion that the celebrities were there for publicity.

"I'm not here because of my publicist -- don't put my picture in the paper," he said. "The only reason we're here is to bring the press out, and that's the only reason you're here."

Earlier, Sheen helped narrate a play about homelessness on the west steps of the Capitol. Titled "Voices From the Streets," it featured homeless people and advocates for the homeless playing themselves.

Gladys Banks, a resident of the D.C. Women's Shelter, told an audience of about 300 that she thinks of her shelter as "heartbreak house" and resents the way people demean those who don't have a home.

"Look at me as a potential achiever instead of a perennial loser," she said. Referring to others at the shelter, she said, "Someday I'm going to miss these women -- if I ever get out, if I ever get out."

Sheen, who wrapped himself in a red blanket between his appearances in the play, seemed very tired by the day's round of appearances but appeared determined to make himself available to the swarm of reporters clamoring for an interview. While visiting Congress earlier in the day, according to Carol Fennelly, a CCNV spokeswoman, the actor suffered a dizzy spell and was treated briefly by the Capitol physician. "He's absolutely exhausted," said Fennelly. "The doctor got him some glucose."

One congressman, Rep. Ron White (D-Ore.), was on hand to show his support for the homeless but declined to spend the night on the streets.

"I'm not sleeping out," said White. "I've had the flu, and Michael said that it would be okay {to leave} as long as I was ready for the vote Thursday."

Michael, it turns out, is Michael Stoops, who White said was a constituent who had relocated in Washington and was sleeping on the streets until the legislation is passed. "He's the reason I'm here," said White.

By 11:30 the TV cameras and lights and most of the reporters had gone. Kennedy, who arrived late from a White House dinner for freshman congressmen, was quietly answering reporters' questions in the dark. There wasn't room on the grates for everyone to stretch out, and a number of sleepers had to settle for less advantageous positions on the ground.

A half-hour later, an infusion of hot coffee was being served, a camera crew had returned, and the lights were blazing around Kennedy.

For House Majority Whip Tony L. Coelho (D-Calif.), the homeless issue now before Congress has a profound personal note: His parents went bankrupt in 1963 and lost their dairy farm and house in California's Central Valley.

"I know what it's like to be thrown out," Coelho said. "When my family went bankrupt, we moved into a shack."

This helps to explain why Coelho -- the third-ranking Democratic leader in the House of Representatives -- chose to spend last night around a grate near the Library of Congress, getting a small taste of life on the streets.

There have been colder nights this winter, but the event was actually planned several weeks ago, while snow was on the ground.

"Sometimes you find friends in very strange places and you find people touched by {homelessness} you wouldn't expect," said Snyder, who counts among his staunchest allies Coelho and House Speaker James C. Wright Jr. (D-Tex.).

Wright got involved in the homeless issue earlier this year, when Snyder's CCNV set up a statue on the Capitol grounds depicting a homeless couple and child. It created a minor fuss. Wright persuaded Snyder to move the statue, to avoid an incident, after touring the CCNV shelter near Second and D streets NW last October and agreeing to push for early passage of legislation to aid the homeless.

Wright condemned the Reagan administration's past efforts on homelessness as "insensitive" and said that Congress, until now, has not been "quick enough or insistent enough" in dealing with the homeless crisis.

"We became convinced of his seriousness in walking through the shelter for an hour and hearing his questions," Snyder said. "We are convinced he's real and he cares."

For Coelho, the call for additional aid for the homeless stirred up bitter memories of his family's hard times in California. "It's important that the American public understand what's been happening the last six years," he said. "We've systematically made life tougher and tougher for more and more Americans ... And it's not just winos and derelicts. It's becoming a concern on our pride. The Russians are taking pictures of the homeless and are showing them as the way we're treating people."

Articles appear as they were originally printed in The Washington Post and may not include subsequent corrections.

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