WASHINGTON - About 100 homeless people were guests of the mayor's office Thursday for a screening of "The Pursuit of Happyness," the real-life story of a homeless man who worked his way to becoming a millionaire.
City officials said they hoped the audience would be uplifted and gain hope from the film. Others cautioned against high expectations, noting that many homeless people are mentally ill and struggle with substance abuse.
The crowd of mostly homeless adults and elderly people groaned at some of the familiar difficulties faced by Will Smith's character, Chris Gardner, and clapped at his triumphs.
When Gardner, who gets evicted along with his young son, is finally offered the stockbroker job he painfully strove for, the audience burst into applause and wiped away tears.
Two city officials choked up while they addressed the audience after the movie.
"Everybody here not only has a story, but they have gifts and skills," said Arafa Speaks, a longtime 52-year-old homeless advocate who brought the idea to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's administration last month.
The crowd was smiling as they came out of the screening at the theater that had donated the time and space.
"The part I liked the best is at the end when he achieved his goal," said Marvin Dodson, a 42-year-old father who has been homeless since June 2006. Dodson said he's taking classes to get an associate's degree in computer information systems.
Most touching for Dodson was seeing a bit of role-reversal - instead of a father leaving children with the mother, Gardner and his son, played by Smith's real son Jaden, stick together after the mother leaves.
S. Rock Dozier, 47, who's also homeless, said that while the film gave him hope, thinking that all the homeless people will go out and change their lives is "too much to expect from one event."
Michael Stoops, acting executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, agreed.
"How Chris Gardner got off the streets, he might have lucked out and it might have worked for him, but that doesn't mean that this one movie will change the lives of every homeless person in the country."
Still, Moses Alexander Greene, the spokesman for the mayor's community relations office, said: "Hope belongs to everyone."
He also said the idea was not to instantly change the fortunes of the homeless guests, but to give them something most take people for granted - a chance to go to the movies, laugh and have a warm meal.
Last month, the mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., invited 15 homeless guests to see the movie and at the time Gardner told The Associated Press that he wants homeless viewers to "take one thing away from those two hours: Chris Gardner isn't doing anything I can't do."