PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Haiti’s president handed out medals to celebrities, aid-group directors and politicians for post-earthquake work Monday in a ceremony designed to beat back criticism of an uneven recovery that has left 1.6 million people homeless and destitute six months since the disaster.

Just out of sight, baking in the oppressive noonday sun, were the fraying tarps of tens of thousands of homeless who live on the Champ de Mars, once a grassy promenade surrounding the government complex.

“That is just a way to put the people to sleep. But the people are suffering,” Edouard James, a 32-year-old vendor said when he was told of the ceremony. Unable to find a job with his degree in diplomacy, he sells pirated DVDs in a tarp-covered booth.

“We are tired of the NGOs saying we will have a better life and better conditions, and then nothing happens,” he said.

Twenty-three honorees — including actor Sean Penn, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper and the head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission — crossed a podium in front of the crushed, unrepaired national palace to steady applause. Some smiling, some solemn, each received medals and certificates deeming them Knights of the National Order of Honor and Merit.

President Rene Preval, whose successor is to be elected in November, defended the response to the quake. He said in two speeches during the ceremony that hard-to-see successes — like the avoidance of massive disease outbreaks and violence — obviates the perception that not enough has been done.

“There are people who did not see all the big efforts that were deployed during the emergency stage: distributing tents, water, food, installing latrines, providing health care during the six months that have just gone by,” Preval said. “It is a major, major task.”

The ceremony was resolutely upbeat. The focus was on successes past and plans going forward, with little talk of the 230,000 to 300,000 people killed in the magnitude-7 temblor.

The president and prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, both used the occasion to say that a six-month emergency phase has ended and that reconstruction has begun. The distinction was lost on some Haitians.

“I don’t know if I’m mad or happy,” Anne Bernard, a 24-year-old mother of two living in a metal shack a few hundred yards from the national palace. “All I know is they haven’t done anything.”

The most visible early emergency programs — such as massive food distributions — have stopped, and there still are few tangible effects of $3.1 billion in humanitarian aid for all but a handful of those left homeless by the quake, who rely on plastic tarps for shelter.

Tarp-and-tent camps are growing instead of shrinking. Just 5,657 transitional shelters have been built of a promised 125,000, which, even if completed, would not be nearly enough for everyone.