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ATLANTA, Georgia, Dec 12 2011 (IPS) - Homeless people make up a significant proportion of participants in the Occupy Movement in cities across the United States, from Los Angeles to Atlanta, where at times they comprise an estimated third of the occupiers.
When the organisers of the Washington, DC occupation, which was planned before the Wall Street occupation but took place later, in October, spoke with activists in Spain whose recent movements had inspired them, they were given the following advice, national activist David Swanson told IPS: Keep your occupation to two weeks or fewer, or it will turn into a homeless encampment.
But Swanson and the other organisers didn’t follow this advice, a choice whose results have challenged people’s assumptions about the political participation of homeless people and raised thought-provoking questions for the Occupy Movement itself.
Despite stereotypical beliefs that homeless people are not interested in politics, the homeless actually have perhaps the least to lose and the most to gain from being involved in the Occupy Movement.
Homeless people have been attracted to the Occupy encampments for several reasons. One is that they have had access to many free meals, as various local groups have voluntarily provided food to protesters.
Another is that Occupy protesters have taken up some of their causes: ending homelessness, fighting gentrification and opposing inequality.
For Copper, a 47-year-old, homeless black man, who travels with his companion dog, also named Copper, the Occupy Movement has transformed his life.
He credits Occupy with giving him a purpose in life and something other than crack cocaine to worry about.
“I was down on Auburn Avenue smoking crack like crazy, living behind a wall in the alleyway. I was getting my water out of the air conditioner condensation. I was washing my clothes with that. I was selling my jewellery and battling the Georgia state police,” Copper told IPS.
“Somebody came along and said, ‘You know what’s going on at Woodruff Park?’ I went to check it out. When I walked up here, I looked on the grass and (saw) all (those) tents and all I said is, ‘My prayers have been answered,'” Copper said.
“Occupy Atlanta helped me save my life because they kept me so busy helping other people, I didn’t even have time to be thinking about me,” he told IPS.
Copper said occupying Atlanta has become a full-time job for him. Since the group was evicted from the park at night, Copper has remained part of a small contingent setting up tents during the day.
“I guess I’ve been an activist for several years and didn’t even know it,” Copper said, citing his struggle against city officials to be able to sell his jewellery in a public park after officials required all vendors to pay steep fees to a privatised contractor.
“I didn’t even know what activist was; I didn’t even give it a thought. I was so busy standing for what was right, I didn’t have time to think of a political position and what I was doing. I was standing for what was right,” Copper said.
But Swanson said sometimes the role of homeless people in the Occupy Movement has been “a mixed bag” and called it “complicated”.
Conflict can arise regarding “where to direct activities – direct action, political organising, or into aid and services for the homeless,” Swanson said. “And with the homeless, you often have that subsection… that have drug and alcohol problems, that have disputes that can turn violent. You have a whole array of issues.”
In Charlottesville, Virginia, “a great many of the people who camp there are homeless, without anywhere to go,” he said. Many are also “new and young and very interested in local community building and aiding people in direct ways they can see and touch”.
“A lot more has gone into helping the homeless than into protesting the National Defence Authorization Act, let’s say, in Washington,” Swanson added.
“It’s tough for me, as someone who focuses on national politics, (that) while we’re helping a dozen homeless people here and there, the Federal Reserve is giving seven trillion dollars to the people who caused this in the first place.”
In Atlanta, prior to Occupy Atlanta’s eviction, dozens of homeless people occupied the park along with housed people.
Following the eviction, Occupy Atlanta set up shop at the endangered homeless shelter, the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless. They have their own space on the fourth floor.
“They are living with us. We are working with them to integrate them into our processes to learn how we can best benefit from their political insights and knowledge. It’s a long-term process for us,” Anita Beaty, executive director of the Task Force, said.
Ron Allan, an activist with Occupy Atlanta, said they have set up an orientation and screening process to make sure no one staying there, homeless or not, has mental health or violence issues that would endanger others, and to ensure that they’re there to participate, not just for the free food and shelter.
Homeless activists “are providing essential services in order for us to be successful in Occupy Atlanta. Their availability to participate in marches and rallies… to volunteer… has been invaluable,” Allan told IPS.
“We have individuals part of this movement that possess an extreme amount of talent,” La’Markus Cook, also with Occupy Atlanta, agreed. “Even the unsheltered that are a part of this movement are providing us with an invaluable service, and we are grateful to their availability and commitment to this movement.”
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