STUDENTS majoring in architecture at Howard University received an unusual assignment recently: Design an ``urban survival kit'' for homeless people for less than $10. As their professor, Raj Barr-Kumar, explained to a reporter later, ``I was trying to say to them, `If you have no place to go and you have a few possessions of your own and you're a mobile sort of individual, what kind of shelter would you design...?'''
One young woman created a tent that could fit over a steam grate, using three broomsticks, reshaped coat hangers, and plastic sheeting. A male classmate used a grocery cart as the base for a bed on wheels. Another student added fabric to an umbrella to form a shelter similar to a Navajo Indian hogan. Still others devised cardboard beds and laminated cardboard triangles.
For students, the assignment may have been as much a lesson in compassion as it was an exercise in design. Professor Barr-Kumar insisted that they go out on the streets and interview homeless people - their ``clients'' - to understand the real-life needs of a ``mobile sort of individual.''
Elsewhere, compassion for the homeless has seemed in short supply this winter. On the East Coast, homelessness has been eclipsed by headlines about urban violence, drugs, AIDS, and the rights of fur-bearing animals vs. those of fur-wearing humans.
Even when media attention has focused on homeless people in recent months, attitudes toward them have seemed increasingly harsh and punitive. Many New Yorkers rallied to support an unemployed construction worker charged with manslaughter for killing a subway panhandler who had been menacing the man and his three-year-old son. Other residents sided with New York transit authorities when they banned begging in the subway system. (A federal judge ruled that such a ban was unconstitutional.)
Reflecting a growing sense of public exasperation, the Wall Street Journal editorialized: ``We have a homeless problem ... because the law enforcement system has collapsed under the weight of preposterous claims about civil liberties.''
It is easy to understand the weariness of urbanites who must daily avert their eyes and quicken their steps to avoid the growing ranks of street people panhandling on corners and sleeping on grates. But hardened hearts risk prolonging the problem, enshrining homelessness as a permanent way of life to be accepted - and endured - rather than as an emergency, not to be tolerated for long.
Already there are signs of a permanent subculture. A cardboard sleeping box known as a Porta-Sleeper is being tested on the streets of Phoenix. A newspaper written by and for street people, called the Homeless Times, is being published in San Francisco. And begging permits are now being issued in New York - an ironic form of recognition at best.
Perhaps the US Census Bureau's first special census of the homeless later this month will help to heighten public concern - and shame - by applying an official measurement to those with no fixed address. On March 20, 9,000 canvassers will fan out in cities across the country to check shelters, welfare hotels, and streets.
But even that effort, dubbed S-Night - Street and Shelter Night - worries advocates for the homeless. They fear the count will greatly underrepresent the size of the homeless population and the magnitude of the need. And even exact numbers can never record the heartaches and humiliations of being ``a mobile sort of individual.''
In January, 71 percent of people responding to a New York Times/CBS poll said they thought the Bush administration ``hasn't shown enough concern'' for the homeless. As March sunshine melts dirty snowbanks and temperatures rise, compassion for the homeless will drop as it does every spring. Spring is the season when the visible rebuke of the homeless disappears, along with their broomstick tents and cardboard cocoons.
Spring is also the season when the frozen earth softens for new buildings to be erected. Will this be the spring when that building will include more low-cost housing, the only decent and lasting solution to homelessness? Or will next fall see further sadly ingenious variations on the lean-to, signaling that nothing has really changed?