4 Occupations Embracing the Homeless (As Cities Increasingly Can't Take Care of Them)
In just under two months, the Occupy movement has managed to turn the country’s attention toward social inequality. As many in the movement struggle with unemployment, student debt and unaffordable mortgage payments, words like foreclosure, debt and joblessness have reentered the public discourse.
More recently, as the number of homeless people at Occupy encampments climbs, the conversation has shifted toward the growing but often hidden dilemma of homelessness in America.
One of the country’s largest occupations can be found in Portland, Oregon’s Chapman and Lownsdale Squares, where an estimated 500 people spend their nights in a sprawling encampment of tents. Many of them are homeless.
Kip Silverman, an organizer with Occupy Portland, told AlterNet, “The majority of them are homeless or disenfranchised people. We have folks that have just recently lost jobs, lost their homes, and the Occupy encampment is all they have right now. We actually have nine families living there.”
During a one-night count in January conducted by Oregon’s Housing and Community Services, the state identified 22,116 homeless people, 30 percent of whom were children. In 2010, the city of Portland had the third highest rate of homelessness in the country. With its free medical facilities, health and outreach services and kitchen serving 1,500 meals a day, it’s no surprise that Occupy Portland has attracted such a high number of the homeless.
The movement is well aware that there are downsides to inclusiveness. “There’s been some rowdiness, there’s been drinking, there’s been some people fighting on occasion,” Silverman admitted, adding, “We’re trying to self-police as best we can.”
In addition, tending to the needs of the homeless could potentially divert energy away from the occupation's initial goals. “There’s a handful of people that feed 500 people three meals a day, that’s 1,500 meals a day,” said Silverman. “It’s a huge strain on the occupation movement itself because we have to focus a lot of time and energy on how we manage our encampment’s infrastructure and services.”
On top of that, the city might be contributing to the problem. “I have heard from three individual sources that some of the city institutions that help the homeless and disenfranchised are actually sending some people our way because we have services that we’re providing that apparently others cannot or will not,” Silverman said.
Nevertheless, he says the movement will continue to welcome everyone, including the homeless. “This is why we’re out here in the first place, and they are also the 99 percent," he said. "These are the least of our brothers and sisters among us.”
Others at Occupy Portland have expressed similar sentiments. "This is a movement that is about justice and inequity and overcoming issues of greed," Gina Ronning, an organizer who volunteers on the peace and safety committee, told the Wall Street Journal. "If our own movement didn't attempt to live those values I don't think we'd be much of a movement."
Ronning went even further, arguing that the inclusion of the homeless "has helped clarify for us exactly what issues we need to focus on. They're here not just because of the resources. They're here also because for the first time a silent population is here to be given a voice."
According to Buck Gorrell, an organizer with Occupy Nashville, the Tennessee offshoot has a significant homeless population as well. While Gorrell said they have been overwhelmingly helpful, “for a stretch, there was a contingent there to drink and raise hell and have sex in the bushes; not many people at all, but enough to cause a disturbance.”
This has forced Occupy Nashville to self-police, which according to Gorrell is no easy task for a movement that values participation from all who attend. At the same time, Gorrell says the homeless population has played a vital role in Occupy Nashville.
“I can’t paint the whole homeless community with one brush, because we have a lot of homeless folks that have hunkered down and been there far more days than not and are filling responsible roles within the encampment and helping out a tremendous amount, even to the point of acting as impromptu liaisons with homeless folks who maybe are confused or drunk or mentally not in charge of their faculties,” Gorrell said.
At César Chávez Plaza, Occupy Phoenix has proudly embraced the homeless who serve invaluable roles in the movement.
In a blog post at Salon, Amy McMullen, a volunteer medic at Occupy Phoenix, observes, “while this movement started out as a broad representation of our diverse population, those who have stuck around through thick and thin are predominately homeless.” One example she gave was a night medic who lost his job as a medical assistant due to illness. The woman who runs the food and water station is a former investment banker who lost her husband and then her home.
McMullen proceeds to paint a sobering reality of homelessness in Phoenix:
“According to an October 2011 report by the advocacy group Phoenix Homeless Rising, Arizona has one of the highest poverty rates in the country: 18.6 percent as of 2010. There are approximately 17,000 beds in Phoenix shelters, which is woefully inadequate for a homeless population that ranges between 20,000 to 30,000 on any given day.”
To make matters worse, sleeping outside in Phoenix is a criminal offense, thanks to the city’s anti-camping ordinances, forcing the homeless into unsanitary and “overcrowded shelter campuses” to “keep them out of sight.”
Given the dire state of affairs, it’s no wonder the homeless population taking refuge at Occupy Phoenix includes some of the most active and committed individuals in the movement. As McMullen points out, “They are the ones who’ve lost the most: their homes, their livelihoods and their families. And they must battle every day to maintain their self-respect. It is only fitting that they are the ones who have stepped forward and assumed these roles in our own little corner of the Occupy movement.”
Arizona’s State Press details the plight of Brian Faulk, described as “one of the homeless regulars at Occupy Phoenix.” Before volunteering at Occupy Phoenix, Faulk spent weeks on the streets after losing his job and then his home, which he could no longer afford. “I think (Occupy Phoenix) provides a voice for people, for the working class,” says Faulk, adding, “The organization of this has been like a blessing. I’ve been able to feel like I’m committed to a cause.”
Steve Ross, an organizer with Occupy Philly, told the Wall Street Journal that 30 to 40 percent of the people taking shelter in the 450 tents pitched at Dilworth Plaza are homeless. But the movement has not shied away from embracing the homeless. At Occupy Philly the homeless have access to three hot meals a day, blankets to keep warm and a place to sleep free from police harassment. But the homeless are also deeply involved in the movement. According to Ross, “Every working group has at least one homeless member, at this point.”
Occupy Wall Street is clearly not a monolith, therefore the debate over how inclusive the movement should be is likely to continue. However, it’s impossible to separate homelessness from the occupy movement’s struggle for economic justice. As Barbara Ehrenreich recently reminded us, “Homelessness is not a side issue unconnected to plutocracy and greed. It’s where we’re all eventually headed -- the 99%, or at least the 70% of us, every debt-loaded college grad, out-of-work school teacher, and impoverished senior -- unless this revolution succeeds.”