When Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president in front of the Capitol four years ago, Stacy Abney was in jail. As Jimmy Carter took the oath of office four years before that, Abney was in jail then, too.

In fact, 73-year-old Abney has never witnessed the inaugural event, even though he is probably the only permanent resident of the U.S. Capitol.

For the past eight years, the World War II veteran has made his home under the marble steps to the East Front of the Capitol building, where he keeps a 24-hour vigil to protest his disability status with the Veterans Administration.

Every time something important happens on the Capitol grounds, Abney refuses to leave and is arrested. This year for the first time, he has a ticket to the swearing-in ceremony tomorrow, but he doesn't know whether he'll be able to attend.

U.S. Capitol Police have told Abney to clear out today.

"They told me I have to leave around 4 or 5 on Sunday," Abney said. "I guess I'll be in jail. At least that's the way I see it right now."

"Anyone who is not properly credentialed to be there will have to leave," said Capitol Police spokesman Bob Howe. "There really isn't a plan to arrest anybody. It's not anything anyone wants to do."

After dozens of arrests over the years, Abney has become something of a folk hero among protesters and local First Amendment attorneys. His lawyer, Frances M. D'Antuono, said that Abney has helped establish the law here for demonstrators who claim that sleeping in can be a form of free speech.

"Nobody's ever given a really legitimate reason why Stacy can't be there," said D'Antuono. "Every cop knows him and they all know he's no security threat. He's not in anybody's way."

Abney left his home in Texas 10 years ago after the VA refused to give him total disability benefits for ailments he claims he contracted during his service in an Army engineer unit in Europe.

"I came up here to let people know how I was treated and what was going on," he said. "I've got to do it. I've got to fight 'em somehow, till the day I die or until I've got what's coming to me."

Each night he unrolls some scraps of cardboard, carpeting and plastic garbage bags on a ledge under the Capitol steps and lays himself down to sleep in a corduroy cap and blue windbreaker, despite what the mercury says.

"This is worse than being dead," he said. "This is a living hell."

He keeps his possessions in neatly tied bundles. Passers-by sometimes give him food or money, and he eats most of his meals out of grocery stores.

The last time he was arrested was when a bomb went off inside the Capitol more than a year ago and the grounds were cleared for security reasons.

Abney spent five months in jail before a Superior Court judge acquitted him.

Abney said he doesn't know whether he'll use his ticket to the inauguration if he isn't arrested. He doesn't exactly warm to the Reagan administration's policies.

"I think it's a sin, a disgrace and a shame the way poor people [are] treated," he said.

"I think it's another disgrace all the billions he's taken away from poor folks and given it to rich people who don't need it."

Abney got the ticket from D'Antuono, who will say only that a concerned person offered it to try to prevent Abney's arrest this year. "I'm under penalty of pain and death not to say where it came from."