He has been homeless for four years, and he still remembers his days of delivering portable toilets. He can guess how expensive one portable toilet was. Looking around at the portable toilets stationed around the National Mall at least five days before the 57th Presidential Inauguration, the homeless man can only imagine how much money those items alone cost.
While thousands gathered on the National Mall Monday for the swearing in ceremony, some carried their belongings away from the festivities, looking for a new place to briefly call home. For the homeless population of D.C., the inauguration was little more than an expensive and unwelcome interruption from their daily lives.
“It’s not gonna help the homeless,” said Al, who wished to keep his last name confidential. “It’s only going to hurt us.”
After splitting up from his wife, Al suffered from depression and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, which made it difficult for him to work. Now, he sleeps in parks around the city, and his days are spent trying to find something to eat. Al thinks the elaborate spending for the inauguration ceremony is a direct affront to the homeless community.
“Look at all this money they are spending,” he said. “They would rather spend money on businesses than help the homeless.”
CNN Money reported in 2009 that the estimated cost of the inauguration reached $150 million. The money comes from the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, the Presidential Inaugural Committee and the budgets of D.C., Virginia and Maryland, and is spent on everything from the ceremony and parade to security and portable toilets.
Many of Al’s friends who regularly sleep inside the security zone were forced out of their stomping grounds due to the inauguration. According to Al, they feared confrontation with increased city and U.S. park police who demanded that they move.
For the homeless in the city, the extravagance of the inaugural activities can seem frivolous and unnecessary.
However, they can also present new economic opportunities, like they do for Debby Pascal, a vendor of the local street paper Street Sense, which focuses on homelessness and other social issues.
“I will be out there, trying to get to these big events” she said.
Although Pascal wished she could dress up and go somewhere nice to view the inauguration, she hoped the increased traffic would provide a unique opportunity to sell more papers. But Al said he has no confidence that an increased number of people will help him or other homeless individuals.
“The majority of people are not gonna give,” he said. “They are not thinking about the homeless.”
Neil Donovan, executive director at The National Coalition for the Homeless considered both perspectives on how the homeless may view the inaugural festivities.
“Homelessness is persistent poverty,” Donovan said. “Anyone who’s lived this way for a persistent time knows it’s grossly unfair. I think in this case its money being spent for someone who’s been pretty good at tackling homeless issues. But at the same time, the homeless still need affordable housing.”
Brian Parks, AmeriCorps VISTA project director at the National Coalition for the Homeless, said he cannot speak for the homeless, but thinks the weekend could offer a positive perspective on the homeless situation.
“The good thing about this weekend is that it sheds a light on service,” Parks said. “The broader community is thinking about that this weekend.”
He said that there would be a lot of resources available for the homeless this weekend, including increased free meals. Many area shelters, including Adams Place and The Harriet Tubman Women’s Center, are offering special overnight hours and increased meals throughout inauguration weekend. And despite some changes in their route because of street closures, the Salvation Army Grate Patrol will continue their mobile meal route on Inauguration Day.
Pascal, who usually sleeps on warm grates during the winter, said she might take advantage of these increased shelter hours during inauguration weekend. And she will try to find a place to watch the inauguration because she supports President Obama.
“I’m glad he’s back in office,” Pascal said.
Many of the homeless, however, were unaware of the special festivities taking place in local shelters.
Michelle, who has been homeless for only four months and wished not to provide her last name, said that she could only receive a meal at the usual 4:30 p.m. meal time from the Center for Creative Non-Violence. If her shelter or any others in the area were offering a viewing of the inauguration, she wasn’t aware of it.
“None of our televisions work,” she said. “We don’t get cable.”
That’s why she decided to stand outside as usual, hoping that a few kind tourists would notice her and spare some change. Although she was proud of the President’s reelection, she didn’t intend to go to the National Mall, choosing instead to stay fairly close to her shelter. At 11 a.m., she said she had only received $2 but admitted that she’d only asked two people.
Al also supports the president, but wishes he would do more to improve housing conditions for the homeless. He hopes that people will start to have some compassion for the homeless and their daily struggles.
“We got to start caring about each other again,” Al said.