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Homeless find home at 'Occupy Philly'

 One Step Away - USA 31 October 2019

At Occupy Philly (USA), one of the many Occupy movements springing up across the world, between 250-300 men and women experiencing homelessness have joined the protest movement. Some have come because they identify with the political message, while for others living on the street the demo offers a safe and welcoming environment. (2682 Words) - By Erik Younge

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One Step Away_Homeless find home at Occupy Philly 1

Homeless people queue for food at the Occupy Philly demonstrationPhoto: Erik Younge/One Step Away

One Step Away_Homeless find home at Occupy Philly 2

Vendors selling One Step Away street paper at "Occupy Philly".Photo: Erik Younge/One Step Away


Richard holds a sign stating that banks are evil.

He's come to the right place. Richard is one of many Philadelphians experiencing homelessness who've flocked to the Occupy Philly Movement.

"My wife and I spent nine months getting the runaround from this big bank, trying to keep our home," Richard said. "The bank said they lost our paperwork. Every month, for nine months we went down there to try to save our home from foreclosure and all they did was screw us up bad. I had just lost my job because of a disability. I'm a veteran. Simple way of life, simple means. Nothing special. Our home was our home."

Richard stopped for a moment, shook his head slowly and said: "Big banks lie, cheat, steal, swindle to get your home in foreclosure. They took our home!"

A protest that began on Wall Street has become a worldwide movement for radical change and the basic fight for human rights. This movement has spread to more than 2,000 cities worldwide and more than 16,000 occupiers globally. The main strategy is to have the greatest number of people sit in and stay for days, weeks, months, years if necessary in hopes of influencing fundamental change in the policies and the laws that affects the majority of the people, and now favor the rich and the powerful.

In many cities across the country, the Occupy movement has also become a haven for people experiencing homelessness. At Occupy Philly, the site of Dilworth Plaza at City Hall is a centerpiece where almost half of the chronic homeless in Center City actually sleep on the ground, on hard cement benches, on the grass, anywhere they can find, with or without blankets. The occupation site is directly across from Love Park, also a place where homeless people often gather, sleep, get fed and hang out for the day.

Perhaps more importantly, the occupation provides a safe and welcoming environment for a population that so often feels unsafe and unwelcome almost everywhere.

Thomas has been homeless for three years, in and out of numerous cafes, shelters and havens. He admits that he drinks too much and gets into fights. He was thrown out of a shelter for carrying a knife. Thomas spends most of his time now at Love Park and the Franklin Parkway, panhandling. Thomas caught on to the Occupy Philly site as a place where he can now stay all day, camp out, get fed, find blankets, clothes and generally have a good time.

"I ain't too sure what these kids' message is, man," Thomas said. "It's all good, though. I hope they get what they want and all. But it's all good for me here. As long as they stay right here, me and my crew are safe from the cops busting us up. The tents are hell of a lot better than hard-ass benches and the ground. I don't have to be sneaking around Suburban Station dodging cops. I get some food every day. They keep me from doing something I don't need to get into.

"I messed up at the last spot I was at; shouldn't have got caught with that blade. I probably won't be able to get my place for a while now, 'cause my name is out there. Just have to wait things out here. Hope something will come up. It's rough, man, rough for me right now."

Leon has a different story. Leon is 28, homeless for five months, presently staying at a shelter, but is "about a month-and-a-half from securing my spot."  Leon is hyper-energetic, hardly sits still, extremely intelligent and impatient for things to happen in his life. He was drawn to the Occupy Movement because of its various messages for social change.

"All that stuff, feeding the people and all is good, but I see the bigger picture here, too," Leon said. "Homelessness is the big issue, but all that other stuff is important. Trying to get better healthcare. I have a 3-year-old daughter and I worry about her all the time. I can appreciate that these people are here for that."

There are also a large number of people who have come down to the site, to escape the "too many damn rules and bullcrap" at the shelter. For them, they don't have to get up at 6 am every morning and deal with rules and regulations. Leaving the shelters means many aren't getting their needed medications daily. That has added another headache for the Occupy medical teams.  But for most, that seems to be a small price to pay for their supposed freedom.

Other people, sitting on the edges of the Occupy Philly tent city, homeless, a large number of them with slight or severe (and worsening) mental health issues look on: some dazed, some bewildered, some with an amused smile, some curious, some uninvolved. They enjoy the free food, clothes, speeches, dancing, music, drums, and are thankful for the temporary relief from police harassment and other daily hassles of life on the streets.

Homelessness is not a side issue for Occupy Philly. A movement protesting (among other things) the plutocracy that has decimated the American family and driven more people into poverty by definition must acknowledge the very people on whose behalf they are protesting. To its credit, Occupy Philly has embraced the people who are the embodiment of the very policies they're fighting.

But it hasn't been easy.

As the Occupation continued and the tents went up, however, word went through the grapevine in many shelters and programs said: "City Hall is the place to go if you are homeless, to get fed, get some clothes, blankets, shoes, toilet stuff, and money."

And come they did. In droves. Amy DiFilippo is one of the members of the Occupy Philly security team. She recently contacted One Step Away and other homelessness providers in Philadelphia seeking help to better serve the homeless population at City Hall and relieve the burden for Occupiers who weren't prepared for the numbers.

"We have just been overwhelmed by the numbers of homeless people who have shown up," Amy said with a sigh. "There are over 250 to 300 homeless people there now. Most are single women and men. But we also have about 38 homeless families there. There are children as young as 18 months; there is at least one pregnant mother. We have supplied food, sleeping bags, clean clothes, some 60 or so tents have been set up. But it is the medical needs that have just overwhelmed us. And we have really no background in how to treat most of their major medical needs."

Food donations have been coming in on a regular basis, from Philabundance, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods and individual donors. They have also set up a "Comfort Tent" where clothing articles, such as coats, sweaters, shoes, socks, pants, blouses, shirts can be obtained.

"We are getting tired," Amy said. "Most of those coming down just need a safe place to be. There have been days with trouble. Some days have seen at least six incidents per hour. We've seen some alcohol and heavy drug use. Most of us have no background in safety. Project H.O.M.E. has been there mostly every day. We need more outreach teams, particularly those able to deal with the mental health needs. Right now, the mental health needs are overwhelming."

Some of the Occupiers met with One Step Away to talk about the need for consistent homeless outreach as an integral part of the Occupy strategy. On the very first night of Occupation, a dozen or so Occupiers did indeed walked across JFK Boulevard to Love Park, helped out with the regularly scheduled Thursday night Love Park feeding conducted by the MCSCS Homeless Project (featured in the October issue of One Step Away). They were able to introduce themselves, interact with a good number of the Love Park homeless and set the tone for the outreach plan.

As Barbara Eisenreich, author of several books including the new bestseller "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) getting by in America, wrote in a recent column for Mother Jones, homelessness and the Occupy Movement go hand-in-hand:

"The destitute are our own native-born 'illegals,' facing prohibitions on the most basic activities of survival. They are not supposed to soil public space with their urine, their feces, or their exhausted bodies. Nor are they supposed to spoil the landscape with their unusual wardrobe choices or body odors. They are, in fact, supposed to die, and preferably to do so without leaving a corpse for the dwindling public sector to transport, process, and burn.

"But the occupiers are not from all walks of life, just from those walks that slope downwards - from debt, joblessness, and foreclosure - leading eventually to pauperism and the streets. Some of the present occupiers were homeless to start with, attracted to the occupation encampments by the prospect of free food and at least temporary shelter from police harassment. Many others are drawn from the borderline-homeless 'nouveau poor,' and normally encamp on friends' couches or parents' folding beds.

"In Portland, Austin, and Philadelphia, the Occupy Wall Street movement is taking up the cause of the homeless as its own, which of course it is. 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."

SIGNS, SIGNS, OF FRUSTRATION AND ANGER

Occupy Philadelphia pitched the flag of protest on the west side of City Hall, in Dillworth Plaza beginning Oct. 6. Almost 1,000 people - students, workers, the unemployed, those with jobs, the homeless, homeowners, veterans, veteran protesters, young activists, senior activists and organizers, the poor, the hungry, the angry, the frustrated, all citizens of the 99% of Americans, whose voices must no longer be silenced - have been part of the protest. They carried signs that told the story of this movement.

"Today it's them, tomorrow it's you!"
"Student loans = indentured servitude"
"Jail bankers for fraud"
"We are the power!"

A young student named Ruth, asked why she was there, answered: "We are here trying to get the people's voice back. We are the majority, not them. In a true democracy, we are the power!"

"We are the 99%!"
"People, not profits"

"Medical bankruptcy has a face"
"Responsible capitalism = healthcare for all!"

Theresa Brown Gold, a brilliant artist and community leader, said: "I'm trying to tell the story of healthcare in the United States. I'm trying to tell the true story. I believe in the power of people's stories, to find a solution so that all can have access to good healthcare, as their basic human right in this country."

"I failed greed 101!"
"Make homes affordable"
"Wake up! America!"
"End the war now!"
"If you're not angry, You are not paying attention"
"I can't afford a lobbyist"


Joanne, from Doylestown, said: "I am a teacher and educator and I am here because our system is based on greed and not meeting the needs of the people. Our whole value system is based on greed and selfishness. Our basic rights are being taken away. Too much greed! We need to be happy with less."

WHO AND WHAT IS THE OCCUPATION ALL ABOUT?

That is the question most people are asking over and over again. There are many answers from many, many people.  Earnest, one of the early organizers, put it this way: "We are people who have lost good jobs and are out of work, some are students who want a good education, we are veterans from the wars, we are poor people who have lost our homes, we are families trying to survive economic disaster, we are just people paying attention to what's going wrong in this society and we want to fix things. We want an end to all the greed that takes the money and the resources of the 99% majority and funds the 1% minority with corporate welfare bailouts. We all have different reasons why we have come here. But we have all come here united in a common cause of peace and respect, to change our society, our country for the better."

The tone for Occupy Philly was set the first afternoon, as the crowd of more than 700 took the pledge: "We are here today for the 1st Phila. General Assembly. We are here together. We are the 99%. We are not working against each other. We are working with each other. We are not separated by gender, politics or other barriers. We must respect each other. We must respect the homeless who call this their home. This is a public space. Respect this! Clean it up. Keep it clean. This is an occupation!"

ONE STEP AWAY ON THE SCENE

One Step Away vendors have been a healthy presence since Day 1 at the occupied zone at City Hall. Vendors and writers set up a table, and have worked tirelessly to ensure the voices of those who are experiencing homelessness and joblessness are being heard, an integral part of this struggle. The response has been extremely positive.

Some vendors, including Jayden, have joined the occupation. Jayden has pitched a tent there and has advocated passionately for his cause, the rights of the transgendered community, and has helped to anchor OSA paper distribution. There is a sizable number of folks there who, like Richard, are experiencing homelessness for the first time, entire families coming to grips with homelessness, hunger and poverty. Cindy and Jeff, with their two young children in their arms, have just been evicted from their home in Newtown, Pa. They said they were" grateful for the paper" and knowing that One Step Away will be "our voice" and will be advocating for them and others.

Several One Step Away vendors are currently living on the streets, and have flocked to Occupy Philly as a safe haven. The Dilworth Plaza site's proximity to One Step Away's distribution site, at Arch Street United Methodist Church, has been a plus - the occupation has given several vendors a safe and welcoming environment where they can be closer to the newspaper's distribution point. In all, as many as 10 One Step Away vendors can be found at Occupy Philly on any given day.

OCCUPY PHILLY - WHERE TO GO FROM HERE?

The Occupy Movement here is a healthy movement. The Occupy Philly is a particularly strong one, third in the country after New York & Chicago.  There are, of course, some questions.

The City Hall site is scheduled to undergo extensive renovations in mid-November and according to one city spokesman, the Occupiers have agreed to leave once it begins. Not everybody is on board with that idea, however. That the city is planning to spend $55 million to construct a skating rink "is absurd, especially looking at how many poor and homeless and other basic needs the people have. That should be a priority," said Jason Gaddy, a student activist.There are others who feel that the Movement should propose a mission statement, a clear action plan that will focus more sharply on specific demands and actions against specific financial targets and more civil disobedience.

"I love that this movement is organic," said Sarah Reed. "They are angry for good reasons. I agree with the politics behind it. I want it to be a grassroots organization. I think it is now, and it could be a missed opportunity to make a strong statement. To take action. Give people a clear action. You have all these people in one place and it is time for clear actions. Tell me what I need to do!"

There have also been ongoing democratic discussions on how to make the Occupation more ethnically diverse. To engage more people of color, more working people, and to have their organizing expertise added to the Movement.

As Dr. Martin Luther King said: "Don't sleep through the revolution."

Peace.

Erik is a formerly homeless man and writer for One Step Away

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