WASHINGTON – Frank Mearns has left the place he calls home, a stone's throw from the White House, and joined thousands of others in Washington who were forced to pull up stakes and move from their regular digs for the presidential inauguration.
But Mearns isn't making a quick buck by renting out his pied-a-terre, as some Washington residents are. Nor did he head out of town on an inauguration escape holiday, as some locals did.
He's one of Washington's army of homeless cleared from the center of the U.S. capital ahead of the historic inauguration of Barack Obama.
"Everyone's got to be out of here and stay out until next Thursday," the 37-year-old said.
"Here" is a space on 14th Street and New York Avenue, in the heart of a zone in the center of Washington that will be closed to traffic and policed heavily during the inauguration.
"Here" is also home to Mearns and a dozen other homeless people each night.
Five of his fellow street dwellers work full-time but can't afford to pay the high rents in the Washington area. Another was displaced from his home in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. And a few women also are in the group.
"There's a lady who's been on the streets for 10 years and been raped seven times," Mearns told AFP. "She sleeps next to the guy from Katrina and if he's not here, she sleeps somewhere else. She sleeps here for safety. She doesn't know where she'll go next week."
Up to 1,200 people live rough in the security zone, including Pennsylvania Avenue, the grand boulevard which the inaugural parade will march down, said Michael O'Neill of the National Coalition for the Homeless.
The effort to clear Washington streets of the district's homeless population was unlike anything that former homeless man David Pirtle has witnessed.
"I was on the streets when George W. Bush had his second inauguration in 2005 and it was nothing like this. There were no large-scale sweeps. I slept on Pennsylvania Avenue the night before and the night after the inauguration," said the 34-year-old who now works for the National Coalition for the Homeless.
"But as hard as the administration is going to try to make this look sanitary, the homeless are not going to be invisible. You can't make 6,000-12,000 people disappear," he said, citing official figures for homelessness in Washington proper and the greater metropolitan area, including suburbs in Virginia and Maryland.
A dozen shelters will be open round-the-clock in Washington from Sunday until Wednesday, the day after Obama takes office, to provide temporary housing for the homeless.
The shelters will be equipped with televisions, showing live coverage of Obama's swearing-in.
But they have only around 2,800 beds. And "things happen" in shelters, said Mearns, who will be staying with an activist friend for the week.
Between 1 million and 2 million people are expected to pour into Washington, a city of 400,000, for the inauguration, some paying tens of thousands of dollars a night for a hotel room and to attend lavish inaugural balls.
Given the huge numbers expected, unprecedented security measures are being put in place to try to ensure that the inauguration Tuesday runs smoothly and safely.
"I don't fault the people who are putting this together for trying to make it a safe event because if there are a couple of million people crammed into the middle of Washington, it could be a target for something," Pirtle said.
"But you can do it and work with the community," he said.
Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty has estimated that the inauguration will cost the city about $47 million, while Maryland and Virginia have estimated their outlay at $12 million and $16 million respectively.
"We are showing our priorities as a nation: throwing a mult-million-dollar party while trying to shovel our poor and our homeless under the carpet," Pirtle said.
"It's an inauspicious start to our new administration of hope that Obama wants to work for," he said, blaming city and security officials rather than the president-elect, who he said is "stuck in the middle.
Presidential Inauguration Committee spokesman Kevin Griffiths said he would "check what our interaction has been with the local authorities about the homeless," and stressed that the organizers have been at pains to make the historic investiture as inclusive as possible.
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