Occupational hazard: Living with the homeless

Does the economic justice movement include the chronically poor? How can it not?

Published November 4, 2011 11:45AM (EDT)

  (Stew Milne/AP)
(Stew Milne/AP)

Tevin Bell is 18 but looks twice his age. Kicked out of his grandmother’s home last year after getting into a fight with his younger sister, Bell has been living on the streets of Detroit, “going from shelter to shelter.” On a brisk October afternoon he is relaxing in a folding chair, snug under a heavy jacket, watching flames lick the lip of a rusted barrel stuffed with burning scrap wood.

He is one of dozens of apparently homeless people clustered around Grand Circus Park, site of Occupy Detroit, which began on Oct. 14. Bell arrived two weeks later and has just spent his first night camping. He says, “I got a tent and a blanket. They said I can stay, ‘but you can’t just camp, you gotta help out.’”

Bell pitched in by joining the night watch, but the routine is not what one might expect. Most Occupy movements have posted signs warning that use of alcohol and illicit drugs in the encampment is grounds for eviction. Bell says, “I’m not going to lie to you. I was drinking last night and smoking [pot]. They don’t ask us to stop but they will ask you to leave if you’re flipping out.”

With its urban farming, micro-gentrification and a lively cultural scene, Detroit is slowly reviving, but is still littered with gutted skyscrapers, abandoned housing and shattered lives. One estimate from 2009 put Detroit’s real unemployment rate at 44.8 percent. Any attempt to organize there has to place the poor and homeless first. But Detroit is no exception.

The “99 percent” has united many Americans against the rule of Wall Street. But tensions are surfacing over how to build a movement that combines a downwardly mobile middle class with communities that have been mired in poverty for decades. In many cities an Occupy movement that appears distinctly middle class, with white, college-age youth at the core, is wrestling with how to join forces with the lower classes and raising a new question; Is Occupy Wall Street a poor people's movement?

The new poverty

Certainly many in the middle class have flocked to the Occupy movement because they fear a plunge into poverty. At New York’s Zuccotti Park, Joan Starr, a 63-year-old retiree from the New York Board of Education, said, “My husband and I are just hanging on by a thread. We have a small pension and Social Security that we paid into for 40 years and now they act like we are on the dole.” Her son spent seven years training to be a union electrician, but “he can’t get work because companies are using low-paid, non-union labor.” The petite, fiery Starr adds, “My grandchildren are on food stamps. We bought into the American dream and got fucked over.”

National Coalition for the Homeless executive director Neil Donovan calls the Occupy movement “tremendously important,” but faults it for a middle-class orientation that is not “shedding light on persistent poverty.” He says, “It is validating the inconvenience of the middle class, where their options have been reduced. They can’t buy the SUV that they want, they can’t go on vacation. They are adopting the language and lifestyle of the poor to describe their temporary inconveniences.”

Socioligist Frances Fox Piven, co-author of the groundbreaking book "Poor People’s Movements," takes an opposing view.

“The Occupy movement is connected to something that could become a poor people’s movement because by its language and actions it has reached out to the poor," she told me.  “To live out of doors, to link arms with the poor and to share food with the poor is a major advance. And to make extreme inequality the central focus is really significant.”

 "We’re here together"

As I talk to Tevin Bell, Detroit’s General Assembly is in session behind us, mostly young and white. Over at the sprawling kitchen Jim Rehberg is ladling out steaming bowlfuls of enticing tomato, barley and vegetable soup. The walrus-mustached Rehberg, who works in a factory that makes chemical fluids for automotive plants, says he made the soup in his “Wobbly Kitchen,” a strike kitchen he runs out of his basement.

“It seems like 90 percent of the people who eat at the kitchen are homeless," he says. "Feeding the homeless is a necessity, but they are part of the movement. They are fitting in.” When the occupation arrived, however, Rehberg adds, “The occupiers did not know how to handle them at first, but they learned.”

Jane (not her real name), a willowy, unemployed holistic therapist who was in her third week camping at Occupy Detroit, elaborates, “There were definitely tensions with the homeless community and the occupiers at first. There were a lot of statements such as, ‘When you’re gone we’ll still be here’ ... They didn’t really want us here. They thought we were being pompous, and we were just a bunch of white kids from the suburbs when most of us are from Detroit.”

To allay their suspicions, Jane says, “We let them know we’re here together. We’re not here to ... take over this space and pretend that we are here in solidarity and leave you with nothing.” She adds, “We joined forces with the United Way and they are assisting us in getting shelters for some of these homeless people to go to, and soup kitchens and showers and clothing.”

In a few instances, however, occupiers resent homeless people. In Toledo, Ohio,  Christopher Metchis, a 19-year-old music student, says, “It just sucks because we don't really have that much support of the homeless. A lot of times they'll just come down here and eat and not really stay.”

In Detroit, Melita says “homeless people are taking advantage of the cause.” She hastens to add, “There's too many homeless people and it should not be that way,” suggesting that the plentiful vacant buildings be fixed up for people to live in.

A recent article by the New York Times homed in on these complaints, describing some homeless as “opportunists looking for free food and clothes, and [who] were often disruptive.” Reality is never that simple because homeless people have their own beef with the Occupy movement. Organizers in Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Cleveland describe how the occupation displaced “the previous occupiers” – the homeless already living in the public spaces that were taken over.

Neil Donovan says he can go into the Occupy D.C. encampment at McPherson Square and pick out the homeless guy “who is pissed off. He’s pissed off because someone is taking his bench that he’s been sitting on for six months and he doesn’t understand why.”

As for disruption, Jon Kurinsky of Occupy Chicago says, “for every episode of a homeless person violating the drinking policy the occupation has adopted there's five episodes of college kids violating it.”

At Occupy Pittsburgh, John Paylor, a 58-year-old homeless Marine Corps veteran who helps manage the supply tents, says the homeless regularly come in and get free food, but “This is a drug- and alcohol-free zone ... There are no altercations. Once in a while tempers flare, but everyone’s getting along.”

One activist in Philadelphia, where the occupation numbers nearly 1,000 strong in some 300 tents arrayed around City Hall, says the movement has made it safer for homeless women to sleep outdoors because of the numbers and protection.

In addition, many occupiers are learning from homeless people, and argue they are a legitimate part of the movement. Zach from Occupy Cleveland says, “The homeless have been occupying the streets for decades more than us. They know how to last through the winter. They’ve been such a huge help with teaching us how to set up our tents, how to keep extra warm ... They’ve been going on all our marches and are street-smart on how to be safe.”

It is in the major cities, where occupations are hundreds strong, that the lower classes are central to the movement. With legions of support and bountiful supplies pouring in, Occupy movements in Philadelphia, Detroit and Pittsburgh have the resources to provide services. At the same time there is a clear policy: Everyone is welcome to food, shelter and bedding as long as they participate in the movement.

“The homeless are an important part of this movement," Jane of Occupy Detroit says. "They are a huge part of the 99 percent. There are a lot of reasons that we don’t know why they are homeless in the first place. Maybe it’s drugs, maybe it’s eviction, maybe it’s loss of a job.”

"The precariously housed"

Jim Rehberg points out where some of the homeless come from: “Many worked in the factories, had union jobs. I call them ‘homeless/forgotten workers.’”

Whiling away time in Grand Circus Park, Albert “Jerry” Edwards is not homeless but he is a forgotten worker. At 58, his towering presence is diminished by his reliance on a cane to walk. His wet eyes and breath speak to a struggle with the bottle. With jobs plentiful 40 years ago, Jerry started toiling in factories before he graduated high school, first at a shop that sewed gear for American soldiers in 1970. At age 19 he married his 16-year-old sweetheart; the first of his four sons was on the way and he had a good-paying union job at Ford’s Saline Plastic plants in Ypsilanti. “A beautiful life,” he says.

His hands describe the intricate ballet of working the line, handling dashboard panels: “Twenty three seconds you have to do your job and do it again and do it again.” He lost his job 14 years later due to medical problems. His wife left him a year later; “she was used to the good life.” He is vague about his sons, indicating at least two, if not all of them, have died.

Donovan, of the National Coalition for the Homeless, estimates there are about 750,000 people living on the streets nationwide and another 4.5 million who are “precariously housed.” The homeless are evident at occupations, but those who are couch surfing, a couple of paychecks away from the street and barely scraping by, are less obvious but probably an even bigger component of the movement.

Officially there are 46.2 million Americans living in poverty, which is defined as a family of four earning under $22,350 a year. This is an appallingly low level. One detailed calculation of what is actually needed to afford the basics of daily life puts the poverty line at around $49,000 for a family of four and $31,600 for one person.

Using this standard the Occupy movement is very much a poor people’s movement. In Toledo, 30-year-old Candice Milligan says her housing situation “is very tenuous.  I stay with two very kind friends. I compensate them through work and whatever rent I can give them. But they're moving, so within a few months I am going to have to find something else.”

In Chicago, 27-year-old Luke Welker has just dropped out of college, two courses away from finishing a B.S. in biology. He says his GPA is 3.4 and he wants to go to medical school, but “I lost my sister to drugs and had to take of my 8-year-old nephew. I had to choose between him or my schooling. I can’t pay for both.” Welker says he is staying with a friend while he tries to find a job.

Donovan says at McPherson Square people tell stories “about their own conditions. They lost their jobs and are having difficulty finding a new one ... They know something is really wrong. They are stuck in an economic hell. They can tell you how it impacts them personally. But they are not gifted with the vocabulary to give voice to what can be done about it.”

This is where the Occupy movement comes in. Piven says “the occupation is a wonderful idea because in contrast to a march or protest it lasts. It becomes locus for mobilizing people. It is through things like taking public spaces, blocking roads and withdrawing cooperation that gives working and poor people some measure of power.” She argues that the movement is “redirecting its attention to what poverty means in the United States today. And it’s not mainly because of the recession; it’s a long-term increase in poverty.”

 Where the movement is going

Just as the deeply entrenched poverty in this country has been decades in the making, the Occupy movement will need years to change it. In the coming months, as the 2012 election heats up, the movement will be pressured to take a stand on the election and policy issues. But doing so could prove to be fatal.

For one thing, the movement correctly observes that Democrats and Republicans alike are in the grip of corporate money. Second, while the needs of the poor are glaring – housing, food, healthcare, education and jobs – endorsing a set of policies could sap the movement of its vitality because reform is based on the notion that the system is fundamentally sound but just needs some tweaks.

The system is not sound. It only is through unleashing the power of poor and workers' movements – what Piven calls “nonviolent disruption” such as sit-ins, strikes, road blockades, occupations and anti-eviction movements – that the power of the 1 percent will be constrained. But that means looking beyond the middle class, which occupies the center of American politics. Ending that occupation is the great challenge ahead for this new movement.

Michelle Fawcett contributed to this report.

By Arun Gupta

Arun Gupta, a New York writer and co-founder of Occupy the Wall Street Journal, covers the Occupy movement for Salon.

MORE FROM Arun Gupta

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