As the Occupy protests around the nation continue to dominate the news cycles, we have noticed several disturbing stories concerning the homeless. I felt it was time for a response. Some Occupy protests have protested the inclusion of the homeless in the movement, due to ironic judgments that homeless are only there to leech food and shelter, and give a bad face to the protest. This is after many of the protests displaced homeless populations that were formerly living in the parks where the Occupiers have taken up residence. There have been reports that at Occupy Boston, the protesters have been abusing the services provide by local homeless drop in centers. Finally, in cities around the country there are laws that have been used in the past to forcefully eject homeless encampments and prevent the homeless from staying too long in any one place. However, some of these same cities have welcomed the Occupy encampments as democratic heroes, allowing them to stay in spite of the laws against encampments. This is blatant discrimination against the homeless.
I decided to see for myself if the claims laid out by the media were true, and went to the Occupy McPherson Square protest in DC as a casual participant. I spoke to a homeless person that had been living and working with the Occupiers. He told me that he had been on the street adjacent to the park, and one freezing night early on a protester had come up to him and asked him if he wanted a tent to stay in and warm food to eat. Ever since then, he had been active in the protest, and continued to live in the same tent, which he called the “tunnel of love.” When I asked him about rumors of homeless being kicked out of the park to make room for the protesters, he said he had heard of no such thing, and the Occupy DC protest had been very gracious to him. I was heartened by this news. Nevertheless, when I asked another man about the rumors, who was a native of DC and only participated in the protest during the day, he said that before the protest came McPherson Park was a “drug haven.” He told me that those homeless who had not wanted to be a part of the protest had sat on the benches across the street and complained whenever they talked to a protester. “We do try to practice what we preach though,” he said. “The homeless are what this movement is about.”
From what I’ve seen at Occupy DC, the news reports of a “schism” within the Occupy movement concerning the homeless are not true. There is also evidence to the contrary in New York: Before that protest was shut down, there was a group dedicated solely to developing good relations with and serving the needs of the homeless population in and around the protest. They negotiated with the larger assembly and with the food team when anyone had a problem with behaviors of those experiencing homelessness, and also collected socks, jackets, and underwear. These are examples of members and communities within the larger movement that support the rights of people experiencing homelessness.
Of course there are still problems. There are those that are concerned with the mentally ill being a part of such large crowds, which is a legitimate concern. The Occupy Burlington protest in Vermont sent a letter to the city’s mayor admitting that they did not have the necessary training to handle some of the homeless. If someone is being violent, sexually harassing anyone, or stealing, then it is certainly defensible to ask that they be given the help that they need, somewhere that they cannot hurt people in a large crowd such as those found at the protests. Also, I think the issue of homeless discrimination in the form of city laws that don’t allow camping is somewhat moot in this case. While many cities are engaging in blatant discrimination against the homeless by allowing protesters to camp, the Occupy movements can’t do anything about this. It wouldn’t make much sense for them to protest the city allowing them to protest. However, it is an issue we need to keep in mind as we watch how different cities react to OWS.
The movement has taken off in other exciting ways that support the homeless as well. An organization based in Florida called “Take Back the Land” has been making news with its mission to move homeless people into empty foreclosed homes. They first vett applicants to the program to make sure they will not do anything to disturb neighbors, and then find them an empty house, break in, fix it up, turn on the utilities, and make it a home. In a sense, this is what the movement should really be about; if our current economic crisis was largely caused by banks making bad loans on homes, then what better and more useful way to protest than to occupy those homes? It tells the banks in a concrete way that they have failed, bringing the top 1% down, and it gives those without homes a new life, bringing the 99% up.
If you are a homeless advocate, don’t be afraid of the Occupy protests. At NCH, we say that the Occupy protests must remember that people experiencing homelessness represent the true 1% – the lowest one percent. Generally, it seems they are succeeding, especially if movements like Take Back the Land continue to identify themselves with the Occupy protests and use their energy to create tangible, big-bank-busting good. Next time you walk by one of the protests, stop by and talk to a few people, and maybe even participate in a human microphone, a general assembly, or a march. If you have time, share a meal with one of the homeless protesters, and let us know what they say, and what you think. Finally, I think more attention needs to be brought to the fact that as the Occupy protests are shutting down or being kicked out from their parks and habitations around the country, so are the homeless, even if they were there first. As a message to Occupy, whomever or whatever you may be, I’d like to say this: Don’t forget the lowest 1%. Don’t forget the homeless. As you pack up your tents and go back to your warm homes for the winter, fight so that those who cannot do say may continue to live in the parks and city squares where you made your home with them these past months. This movement represents an important moment for those in the fight against homelessness and inequality, and we all need to show our support.
For a powerful perspective from a homeless street paper, Street Roots, on the Occupy movement: http://streetroots.wordpress.com/2011/11/30/the-occupy-homeless-movement/
By Hunter Scott, Fall 2011 Intern