By Nigel Duara
When Occupy Wall Street protesters took over two parks in Portland’s soggy downtown, they pitched 300 tents and offered free food, medical care and shelter to anyone. They weren’t just building, like so many of their brethren across the nation, a community to protest what they see as corporate greed.
They also created an ideal place for the homeless. Some were already living in the parks, while others were drawn from elsewhere to the encampment’s open doors.
Now, protesters from Portland to Los Angeles to Atlanta are trying to distinguish between homeless people who are joining their movement and those who are there for the amenities. When night falls in Portland, for instance, protesters have been dealing with fights, drunken arguments and the display of the occasional knife.
However, many homeless say the protests have helped them speak out against the economic troubles that sent them to the streets in the first place.
“The city wasn’t giving us what we needed,” said Joseph Gordon, 31, who trekked his way from Cincinnati two months ago and noted that there is nearly always enough food but never enough shelter. “You can’t feed your problem away. It took this camp to show people how it really is.”
As protesters across the country try to coalescence around an agenda in the coming weeks and months, they are trying to make life work in camps that have become small-scale replicas of the cities in which they were erected. And just like those cities, they are dealing with many of the same problems the local governments have struggled for decades to solve.
Some organizers see the protest and the inclusion of the homeless as an opportunity to demonstrate their political ideals. They see the possibility to show that the homeless are not hopeless and that they, too, can become a functional part of society.
In Portland, the protest has swallowed up two square blocks. There are shaggy haired college kids, do-gooder hippies, and couples with their young children. They came by the dozen, in cars and vans, on bikes and on foot and in rides hitched on the highway. Rain falls daily and dry socks are at a premium.
At the center of the camp are the medical, information, library and wellness tents. Along one side are families, who established a play area for children. On the opposite side is the “A-Camp” — for anarchist. It’s where the city’s anarchist faction and long-term homeless sleep.
“We’re here to spoil each other,” said Kat Enyeart, a 25-year-old medic who says she spends half her time tending to the homeless, some of whom are physically and mentally ill. “It’s a big, messy, beautiful thing.”
As the occupation enters its fourth week, divisions have begun to emerge. Without the ability to enforce laws and with little capacity to deal with disruptive or even violent people, the camp is holding together as it struggles to maintain a sense of order and purpose.
One man recently created a stir when he registered with police as a sex offender living in the park. A man with mental health problems threatened to spread AIDS via a syringe. At night, the park echoes with screaming matches and scuffles over space, blankets, tents or nothing at all.
Last week, a homeless man menaced a crowd of spectators with a pair of scissors. Micaiah Dutt, a four-tour veteran of the Iraq War, and two other former soldiers had no problem tackling and subduing the man. Other members of the protest’s volunteer security detail have been punched and threatened with knives.
Dutt said he felt helpless at times and noted that the man he helped subdue could, in theory, press assault charges against him.
“I served four tours in Iraq, and I felt more safe there at times than here,” he told a gathering of protest organizers under a drizzly evening sky. “There, I had a weapon and knew the people around me were with me. Here, I don’t know.”
Dutt said the protests are not just about the radicals and the politicians. “It’s about our community taking care of itself because the city, county and federal governments have neglected this population,” he said.
In Los Angeles, protesters are dealing with similar issues: Homeless transplants from the city’s Skid Row have set up their tents within the larger tent city. No violence has been reported, but protest organizers are attempting to discourage people who are only at the encampment for the amenities.
Some, like Steven Pierieto, said they’ve fallen on difficult times but are at the protest because they support the movement. They scorn those who come for the sandwiches but never lift a protest sign. Life in camp, Pierieto said, is far better than life on Skid Row.
“I’m very comfortable right here,” Pierieto said. “I don’t have to smell urine. I don’t have to see people smoking crack. I have porta-potties right here. It’s peaceful.”
In Oakland, California, where the camp on the City Hall lawn has become a tourist attraction, organizer Susanne Sarley said getting along for a common cause will be an ongoing challenge. “This is the homeless people’s turf,” Sarley said. “This area we’re occupying is their home. We can’t move them. We have to cooperate and respect the community that we’re in.”
The friction between the homeless and the protesters has not been the case in other cities. In Atlanta, for instance, it has been a benefit. The homeless have helped newbie protesters learn how to put up tents that can withstand wind gusts, maintain peace in close quarters and survive the outdoors.
Billy Jones, 28, provides security at the protests. Jones said he’s not just looking for free food.
“Don’t have the misconception that most homeless people are always out for a meal,” Jones said. “I’m here because there are things I can lend that are helpful to the movement. I can get food anywhere. I don’t have to be at Occupy Atlanta to get food.”
In Salt Lake City, protesters see working with the homeless as an opportunity to demonstrate their political views. “We can help people get out of homelessness,” said organizer Jesse Fruhwirth, 30. “We have already surpassed any effort the state or city has ever made to create a sober, happy space for the homeless.”
Brent Jackson, 46, is one of the homeless who has been recruited as a volunteer and is an active member of a planning group. He said the protest’s message rings especially true with homeless people. “The homeless are the bottom of the 99 percent,” Jackson said, referring to the percent of Americans the protest says it represents apart from the wealthiest 1 percent.
“We have a lot of disillusioned Americans, but they don’t think what happened to us can happen to them,” he said. “Except it can.”
By Nigel Duara