NYC’s Homeless: The Original Occupiers of Wall Street

What is the 99% if it does not include the homeless?

I made a brief visit a few weekends ago to Zuccotti Park, the original site of the Occupy Wall Street camp outs, assemblies and demonstrations which are still taking place around the country.

So much of the direct action posited by the movement, the long-term commitment of its participants, and the radical conversations which it has been forcing into mainstream political discourse have been very exciting and hopeful for me. During my trip I saw examples of real attempts at collective struggle, and some genuine tensions arising from the reality of a broad, collectivist movement with constituencies from a huge range of social spheres and political leanings. Yet of the few things I was lucky enough to observe and learn, there was one event which occurred around the time of my trip which struck me as worrisome.

While visiting OWS, it was brought to my attention that the onsite chefs–protesters, workers and volunteers who have been regularly preparing food for all of the demonstrators–have been striking, refusing to continue serving meals at the protest. The primary reason given for their refusal was that homeless people who were not actually involved in the camping or demonstrations in Zuccotti Park were taking advantage of the free meals. In the past weeks, several mainstream media sources have reported that Occupy X demonstrations around the country have been interrupted and undermined by “freeloaders” and “criminals” seeking to make good from its limited resources without actively participating in the protesting.

That The New York Post and and other major news sources have been focused on reporting the movement’s roadblocks, and not its successes and moments of triumph, should come as no surprise, and should be critically noted. Yet, even so, these reports, as well as accounts I have received from actual protesters and organizers, are deeply troubling.

What worries me most about these strikes against the homeless is that they are indicative of critiques which have been made of the Occupy X movement from its inception–namely, that its originally broad base is losing capacity because the movement’s stance as anti-corporation is failing to make the connections between corporate greed and other systems of inequity and oppression. Accusations that the movement has been white, student, and middle-class-dominated have abounded since the start of the protests, even though there is much evidence and many personal accounts which challenge and complicate those claims. Regardless, a platform which seeks to challenge corporate power and domination, but cannot connect that power to legacies of racism, sexism, privatized education, the prison industrial complex, the erosion of public assistance, homophobia, transphobia, and so much else, is not only acting shortsightedly, but missing the point.

How do people become homeless in the first place? Many have joined the ranks in recent years because major banks–like so many of those rightfully harped on by the Occupy X movement–have knowingly sold them faulty loans and then foreclosed on their houses, betting against them for financial gain. Many have had their jobs stollen from them, not by immigrants or the citizens of poorer countries, but by profit-hungry corporations who have sought out cheeper labor at their expense. Nearly a third of all homeless people in the US are military veterans, lured into the armed forces out of economic need, then returned home to find that none of the support systems promised them exist. Another closely related group are the mentally and physically disabled homeless, who are not privileged or lucky enough to access the resources they need to survive in a world which does not acknowledge their existence. Many who live on the streets are ex-convicts–who may or may not have committed any serious crimes–but have had the misfortune of being branded by the criminal justice system as deficient citizens, and find it nearly impossible to find jobs or homes. A massive proportion of the homeless are queer people, kicked out of their houses because of their sexual or gender subversive identities, or unable to find legal protection against discrimination in the work place and on the part of housing authorities. Still more are mothers, kids, undocumented workers, addicts, participants in the sex industry, the decedents of slaves and native peoples, and countless others from oppressed histories and radical identities.

To some members of our communities, these populations might be considered “undesirable,” but if they are not a part of the 99% then I don’t know who is.

My question is: what if homeless people were eating meals at OWS, and were not staying around to protest or tent afterward? Does that signify some form of failure, either on the part of hungry individuals or the larger movement? In an economic order based on scarcity, competition and domination, providing basic resources is always a radical act, and generosity always undermines greed. Who understands cooperate gluttony better than those who have been regularly denied virtually all their most basic rights as the result of the gross disparities in the distribution of resources? Who knows the consequences of occupying public space better than those who do it because they have no other option?

A movement which claims to represent the 99% must grapple with the realities of poverty just as fiercely as it attacks the wealthy, finding solidarity and support amongst exactly those communities which we have all been taught to fear and distrust. And while I understand the complications of limited resources, isn’t finding ways to make the little we have work for everybody at the heart of all our oppressed experiences? What could be more radical than showing the oppressors that even when they have stolen everything from us, we still know how to survive?

2 responses to “NYC’s Homeless: The Original Occupiers of Wall Street

  1. Thank you so much for this. I was under the impression that feeding the homeless was an active part of OWS and I’m shocked they have taken a stand against it. It would be interesting to see how they could partner with other organizations in NYC working against homelessness to help address the huge scope of it in that city, as it sounds like those cooks are overwhelmed and do need support; in Santa Fe we have Food Not Bombs working with the movement on meals for all. I just started working at a shelter and have become aware that, in contrast to NYC, most of the on-site cooks here at Occupy Santa Fe are homeless folks. Your perspective is so well-written and thoughtful, as always, and I appreciate the way you illuminate many of the interlocking issues around homelessness because, yes, if we can’t find a way to include those issues in this movement, what does that say? I think the involvement and perspective of this vulnerable group of people is crucial to the movement, yet of those not involved, not only are they not lazy ‘freeloaders,’ but people—perhaps some of the more privileged protesters getting frustrated with them— should be aware of some of the complications of living life without a home and many other resources. So many of the people I meet have to hustle to coordinate basic social services like getting their Disability check from Social Security, mostly on foot and in the cold, on top of dealing with that disability. Many leave the hospital before they are better because they know they can’t afford the payments, and many more are homeless because of a health crisis they couldn’t pay for. My wish is that, in this movement, let us not fail to remember or imagine or find out how much work is involved in trying to make ends meet in the maze of this broken system for those among us who have lost everything because of that system.

    • Thank you for reading! I’m really glad to hear that other sites are working actively to incorporate and support homeless people in their cities, and appreciate your insight on Food Not Bombs. Joining with other organizations for the specific purpose of providing resources around the protest is a great idea, and one that I hope is copied at other sites and in other direct action projects.

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