Washington Clifton Wayne Lee, a homeless veteran, usually sleeps on a heating grate outside the Federal Trade Commission building. It would be a prime spot on Inauguration Day — just steps from the inaugural parade route.
But he’ll have to give it up. District of Columbia and federal authorities are telling homeless people that they’ll soon have to vacate the large chunk of property that will be secured before President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration Tuesday. The zone includes the National Mall, Capitol Hill and more than 10 blocks that make up the parade route.
“I think Obama’s a great man,” said Lee, 58. “I’ll just watch it on TV.”
Officials say homeless people must uproot their encampments by Monday night. But like the crowds of visitors, the homeless can return to the Mall and the parade route Tuesday — as long as they get screened through security checkpoints and abide by the strict rules on what you can carry. There are a number of restrictions that could affect the homeless, such as bag-size limits on the parade route and a ban on glass containers in much of the lockdown zone. As a result, the homeless must know that their belongings may not be accepted at security checkpoints, said D.C. police spokeswoman Traci Hughes.
“We’re not discouraging people from attending,” Hughes said. “We’re letting them know that if they intend to attend the parade, they just can’t have the prohibited items.”
Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan says the federal agency will conduct sweeps Tuesday beginning about 3:30 a.m. to ensure the secure area is free from explosive devices and other possible threats.
It’s difficult to count the homeless, but local officials say there are more than 6,000 in Washington, including many who suffer from mental and physical disabilities. On an average day, dozens of encampments can be found along Pennsylvania Avenue, which will host the parade.
The location is a popular one for homeless people because of its proximity to soup kitchens and other services. The benches in the area — from the White House to the Capitol — tend to fill up at night with the homeless, bundled under blankets and surrounded by their shopping carts, bags and other items.
To accommodate the homeless population around inauguration time, the city is expanding its services, offering more shelter and warm meals along with access to TV sets so the homeless can watch the festivities.
D.C. has decided to keep all 10 of its homeless shelters open 24 hours a day from 7 p.m. EST on Sunday to 7 a.m. on Wednesday. In addition, the city says seven churches and homeless-service providers will extend their hours on Inauguration Day and provide TV viewing and meals.
And if the temperatures are below freezing, city officials will open 11 emergency shelters to the homeless.
Outreach groups and homeless advocates have been meeting with local officials to discuss how authorities will handle homeless people during the inauguration. Michael O’Neill, an advocate with the National Coalition for the Homeless, says the city tends to “hide the homeless” for major events.
“We want to urge them to be considerate of the homeless,” O’Neill said. “That’s where people live, it’s their home and they’re being kicked out.”
Still, O’Neill worries that the efforts will fall short. With only about 2,200 beds in the shelters, there won’t be enough space for the city’s homeless to sleep. He also has growing concerns about the number of tourists who have called the coalition in search of shelter beds as a cheaper way of staying in town for the inauguration. Shelters cannot turn anyone away regardless of their housing status.
Adding to his worries is the city’s decision to stop the shuttles that normally transport people to the shelters. Laura Zeilinger, deputy programs director for the D.C. Department of Human Services, says the decision was made to ease traffic conditions that day, though hypothermia vans will remain on call.
Some of the downtown homeless have a plan for the inauguration. Lee, for example, says he plans to watch the ceremony at a transitional housing shelter, where he’s learning to wean himself off 45 years of street living.
Nga Thi Buscall says she prefers to stay outside. The 60-year-old native of Vietnam says she doesn’t know where she will go if she’s not allowed to stay at her encampment of blankets and CVS bags across from the Newseum, also on the parade route.
“I’m going to go somewhere else,” she said. “I’m not going to go to a shelter because people there have all kinds of problems.”