December 25, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The spirit of the season:

* In Rome, which is experiencing a colder winter than usual, a Catholic charity, the St. Egidio Community, has issued a guidebook for the homeless. It tells the city's footloose where they can get a bed, meal, shower and health care -- free, or at least cheap.

Italy offers very little taxpayer-financed help for the foreigners from Africa and Asia who have swarmed in looking for work. But citizens of all strata are willing to help. The Associated Press reports that the guidebook was issued first at a soup kitchen in the Janiculum, an upper-class neighborhood.

* In Silver Spring, Md., a group of men paid a good-will visit Monday to aged residents at the Fairland Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. The Washington Post says they sang Christmas carols and distributed poinsettias contributed by a department store. Some of the old folks wept at the kindness shown by their visitors -- who were homeless men now living at Montgomery County's Aspen Hill Shelter.

The poinsettias, after being used in commercial displays, were offered to the homeless men to sell for money to fill their own needs. The men decided instead to give them away, to people ''less fortunate than us.'' as one of them said.

* In New York, the lobby of Trump Tower was almost empty one evening last week. The marble floor was polished like a gemstone and a Christmas tree soared from basement level up past the lobby floor into the atrium. Security guards were vigilant at the revolving doors, and no one inside looked even slightly homeless.

At the Plaza Hotel, people stood in line to have tea among singing violins in the Palm Court, at $18 apiece for a serving of Earl Grey, a few finger sandwiches and sweets. Farther down Fifth Avenue, the New York Public Library had guards at the door, too. But it was more hospitable; whatever their living arrangements, people who looked studious enough were allowed among the ornate old woodwork and humming computers for a comfortable afternoon out of the bitter cold.

* In Manchester, N.H., GOP presidential candidate Pat Buchanan said the homeless should be restricted to certain areas so they wouldn't bother peaceable citizens. Those who persist in panhandling from residents should be arrested for vagrancy and locked up. He also proposed that that United States help solve its immigration problem by building a defensive trench and fence along the Mexican border.

Poll figures show Mr. Buchanan has more than half as much support as George Bush in New Hampshire. Noting this, the president plans a mid-January visit to the first primary state. How he will trump his challenger is unknown.

* Outside the northwest Washington Metro station through which I head for work, the same man has made his home for two years or more. He used to occupy a little ell of shelter in the facade of the Sears store there, but recently moved around the corner onto Albemarle Street, out of the prevailing wind.

Although St. Columba's Church a block away offers shelter and food, this white-bearded individual prefers independence. He has built a home of packing crates, reinforced by lawn furniture and insulated boxes. The stack of blankets he keeps alongside has grown lately. The man himself is hardly visible inside the parka he wears day and night. The odor that causes pedestrians to make a wide arc around his dwelling is not so pronounced since the weather has turned cold.

For the past few days, the man has had a Christmas tree, about three feet tall, complete with ornaments. Around its base, there are scattered goodies -- apples and candy. Where these signs of the season came from, I cannot say, because I have not asked.

Although I have passed this homeless man at least 200 times, I have never spoken to him and he has never spoken to me. Nor have I seen anyone else speak to him. Although a couple of other seemingly homeless people ask for spare change at the head of the subway escalator, this one never asks for help.

He is just there. And yesterday, just by being there, he made a more penetrating appeal to the conscience of this pedestrian than the aggressive panhandler who demands donations as his right. Just by being there, he made me wonder whether I was being as mean by walking past as Pat Buchanan was by catering to the meanness hidden in ordinary voters. That is not a comparison I enjoy. For the first time, I stopped and spoke.

Thanks, Pat.

Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

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