Talk of the Town: Homelessness and the Occupation

Tent cities are nothing new to communities across the country. Homeless people have for decades made parks, underpasses and wooded areas their home of last resort. How to stay warm, where to find food, and how to take care of basic physical needs are the chores that occupy the daily lives of the 660,000 homeless people in the United States.

Occupy protesters across the country may not have started their protests with homelessness in mind, but as Barbara Ehrenreich notes in this fascinating commentary, they are getting a crash course in the basic inequities that many homeless people experience every day. Ehrenreich cites laws enacted in many cities that ban not just public urination or tent encampments, but also simply sleeping in public and “‘when awakened stat[ing] that he or she has no other place to live.'” Ehrenreich suggests that Occupy protestors sometimes receive better treatment than the homeless, noting that “LA’s Skid Row endures constant police harassment, for example, but when it rained, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had ponchos distributed to nearby Occupy LA.”

Lydia DePillis writes in the Washington City Paper this week that some people experiencing homelessness are receiving help and fellowship from their new neighbors. At Occupy D.C. in McPherson Square, a “sleepers committee” has formed to strategize how to support homeless people in the event of cold weather or the end of the occupation. “That may come with breaking even more rules,” writes DePillis, “like making campfires to stay warm, or laying down flagstones to create paths through the muck.”

In the New York Times, Steven V. Mazie writes about how Occupy Wall Street might develop goals and a vision that is “coherent” and “inspiring.” He cites as one barrier to cohesion the vast differences between members of the so-called 99%, saying, “it does violence to the special problems facing the truly poor to lump everyone in the bottom 99 percent together as if families on food stamps are really on a par with those making $100,000 or more a year.” Mazie suggests the protestors focus on philosopher John Rawls’s ” boldest claim — that inequality in society is only justified if its least well-off members fare better than they would under any other scheme” as a way to clarify the values of the movement.

We want to know what you think. Can the Occupy protests raise issues of homelessness to the fore? Will the deepest inequities in our society be masked by a focus on the needs of the middle class? How would you define success for this movement, and what would it take to get there? Let’s talk about it in the comments.


  1. mandymorello says:

    I applaud you for this article, however I am surprised that you are naive to think that OWS will do anything to help the homeless issue. How many homeless defecate on police cars? How many homeless have Ipads and Iphones, let alone the new tents that were brought out for this “occupation?” Now there are reports that the food service for OWS is mad because of FREELOADERS!

    As a homeless advocate, you should have the numbers of how many tent cities throughout the year are raided because they are blights on the society. The homeless primarily choose out of the way location in order not to be near the majority of society and yet the crybabies that are OWS, who the majority have homes to go to once their civil disobedience quota has been reached, have set up camp right in main streets and locations.

    As a homeless advocate you should point this blatant bias the governments of each of these cities are giving to this Political Organization.

    • Thank you for your comment, mandymorello. To your point about government bias, in this post, we do quote from Barbara Ehrenreich’s article where she notes that L.A.’s mayor sent ponchos to Occupy LA while there is a history of homeless encampments in that city being raided.

      Anyone interested in this kind of issue should check out “A Place at the Table” from the National Coalition for the Homeless: It addresses laws against sharing food with the homeless.

      Readers, do you think the reports of unsavory behavior from some Occupy protestors (i.e., the defecating on a police car incident mandymorello mentions) overshadow any broader message the movement may have?

      • mandymorello says:

        Thank you for the quick reply, but I want to know what “broader” message OWS may have are you talking about, especially when there are report after report of the absolute un-unified message this movement brings.

        There has not been one cohesive message other than a complete civil disobedience across the country. In LA it was reported that the cost to taxpayers for repairing the lawns would be approximately $400,000… this does not include the taxpayer money being wasted on police presence, traffic and clean-up. That $400,000 I am sure could have been used to help with Homeless projects through groups that have proven track records of helping homeless back into society.

  2. You are aware that the NYC OWS protestors have already told the homeless they won’t feed them their gourmet food? The cooks went on strike yesterday stating the “professional homeless” we’re taking advantage of them and they would no longer accommodate them but instead will be pointing them towards soup kitchens and shelters…. So nope, I don’t think they give a rats hiney about anyone but themselves.

  3. Tie Regional Wages To Regional Housing Costs says:

    Using the nlihc report, out of reach, I’m inspired to suggest a demand that speaks across class lines: wage reform. Peg a region’s wage to the region’s mortgage/rents to levels like that of the 60’s, when the average American worker could afford a two bed home rent/mortgage rate with one week of 40hrs work. What are the consequences of jacking wages waaaay up? What do we have to lose in this struggling economy? Shouldn’t it be attempted while the iron is hot? Isn’t it a win worth the pain of struggle? It’s about the only thing I think would inspire most in the 99.


  1. […] Opinions vary on whether Occupy Wall Street or its sister occupations across the country are adding to the dialogue, or just making a mess. But many issues discussed at the Occupations are relevant in communities across the country, particularly that of the banks’ role in foreclosure and eviction. […]

  2. […] the planning process in their communities? How can low income housing advocates leverage the message of Occupy Wall Street to make change at […]

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