Saturday, January 19, 2013

Is Washington DC Trying To Hide Its Homeless Population During Inauguration?

This weekend, as many as 800,000 people will show up in downtown Washington D.C. to watch President Obama’s second inauguration. What they won’t see, however, is D.C.’s homeless population.

That’s because on Thursday, the city issued a special order requiring homeless shelters, which normally close during the day, to remain open on Sunday and Monday. As a result, many of the city’s homeless people will be indoors on inauguration weekend, out of public sight.

In and of itself, giving homeless people a refuge during the day is laudable. Doing so solely on the two days when world’s eyes will be on D.C. raises questions about whether the city is simply trying to hide its homeless residents.

On a typical day, shelters open in the afternoon or evening and accept people who need a place to sleep. Everyone must then leave early the following morning. The only times shelters are required to stay open during the day is during a hypothermia alert when the temperature dips below 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

However, as confirmed to ThinkProgress by phone Friday, the city has already made a special declaration because of the inauguration that all shelters shall remain open during the day on Sunday and Monday, regardless of the weather. There is currently a high of 47 degrees on Sunday during the day, though it will be cold with wind chill.

Willis Johnson, a 53-year-old man who has spent time in the DC shelter system after moving here last year, didn’t take kindly to the city’s move, but he understood their motivation. “D.C. wants to look good for visitors,” Johnson told ThinkProgress. “Its an unfortunate means to an end.” He went on to call it a “band-aid measure to a neglected ongoing social challenge.”

Indeed, the District’s homeless population is growing. In 2012, 6,954 homeless people in Washington D.C., a 6 percent increase from the year before.

Another man currently living in a shelter, Charlie, told ThinkProgress he didn’t necessarily take umbrage at the city’s move, saying that perhaps it’s necessary for security. He was looking forward to being able to stay inside over the weekend.

It’s hard to criticize the District for devoting more resources to helping homeless people get shelter this weekend. But the question is are they willing to be as generous when the cameras are off and the city isn’t the center of attention? Last year’s city budget, which cut homeless services by $7 million even as the District enjoyed a $140 million surplus, might be an indication.

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