It is impossible to separate homelessness from Occupy Wall Street’s struggle for economic justice.
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.”