The Homeless…the Occupy Movement


The Homeless…the Occupy Movement
19 November 2011
Jonathan Gillis

 “Tent Cities are American’s de facto waiting room for
affordable and accessible housing. The idea of someone
living in a tent (or other encampment) in this country
says little about the decisions made by those who dwell
within and so much more about our nation’s inability
to adequately respond to those in need.”[1]

-Neil Donovan
Executive Director
National Coalition for the Homeless

Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak offers some reasonable criticism of the Occupy Movement; reasonable from a perspective perhaps slightly, if not altogether marred by the contradictory doctrinal confines of the establishment. Though the criticism appears garnered out of genuine philanthropic concern, the premise which Dvorak adopts is rather flawed, and the conclusion drawn from the criticism itself is imprecise, and not impressive. Dvorak proclaims that Occupiers are tolerated to occupy public-private space, while the homeless, a superfluous segment of the population in general, one part of many in the series of the grave shame of this society, are not permitted to do so. Therefore, among other inadequate reasons, such as health, sanitation, and security, Occupy D.C., as well as all Occupies, should dismantle or be cleared out. The motivation for the State to clear out Occupy protests is clearly political, notwithstanding the pretexts of health, sanitation, security and so forth.

According to Dvorak, and presumably, the Washington Post, Occupy D.C. and the Occupy Movement in general should simply go away, for there “are better things to do than hang out” in a park.[2] Dvorak’s argument is rather contradictory and defeatist, attempting to both chide and encourage the Occupy Movement, as if calling to a child who has stayed outside longer than playtime allotted; essentially stating that, besides, unlike the Occupy protesters, it is not tolerable for the homeless to have tent cities. Anywhere highly visible to business, tourists, the general public at large, is off limits to everyone, after a while at least. While, it is, for all intents and purposes, essentially, illegal, to be homeless in America, that has not deterred a minority of people from forming and maintaining their own communities, without authorization, notwithstanding that the criminalization of homelessness is financially costlier than housing those that are homeless as the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty outlines in a November report. The report shows, that of 234 cities surveyed, “40 percent prohibit sleeping in public places; 33 percent prohibit sitting/lying in public places; 56 percent prohibit loitering in public places; and 53 percent prohibit begging in public places.” The report, entitled, Criminalizing Crisis, concludes that “supportive housing and shelter are much more cost-effective than applying the criminal justice system to homelessness.  Cost studies in 13 cities and states reveal that, on average, cities spend $87 per day to jail a person, compared to $28 per day for shelter.  A Utah study shows that the annual cost for providing a homeless person supportive housing is $6,100, compared to $35,000 to jail them in a state prison.” [3] In other words, taxpayers are meant to cover the bill of the criminalization of homelessness, a much more expensive sum than the cost of actually providing the basic social service of housing. Billions, trillions squandered. The plunder of high-intensity wars, includes the control of oil. This is a clear indication of where doctrinal and cultural priorities are. The Criminalizing Crisis report concludes “that criminalization measures do nothing to solve the problem of homelessness. Instead, they frequently perpetuate homelessness, place unnecessary burdens on our criminal justice system, and violate homeless individuals’ civil and human rights.”[4]

According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, between October 2008 and September 2009, ten cities, that is, cities with a population greater than 30,000 residents, “reported having homeless ‘tent cities’ or other large homeless encampments [although] within these cities they account for a very small percentage of people who are homeless.”[5] Also important to note, for some context, on the Pacific coast alone, there are no less than nine different quasi-permanent tent cities in Oregon, Washington, and California, as detailed in a March 2010 National Coalition for the Homeless report.[6]  Granted these cities are outside the prism by which popular culture is looked at. Incidentally, the National Coalition for the Homeless explains that “[t]he term tent city is used to describe a variety of temporary housing facilities that often use tents. Authorized and unauthorized tent cities, created by and for homeless individuals and families, are now found across the country.”[7]

Apparently Dvorak spoke with a Mr. Joe Good, whom “has been homeless for a year and a half”. “They’d never let [homeless people] do anything like that. Never in a million years” Good reportedly said as he looked on the Occupy contingent at McPherson Square in the District of Columbia.[8]

One would need to consider the violent crackdowns on Occupy protesters all over the country, the mass arrests of thousands, the complete dismantling and destruction of encampments and belongings. Actually, in a sense, Occupy protesters have been experiencing many similarities that homeless people experience regularly, though perhaps on a more macro scale, and of course with widespread and continuing media coverage, albeit slanted to fit the corporate paradigm––after, and with continued, deliberate censorship, much reluctance and flippant news-speak by pundits.   

Probably one of the more solemn and disgraceful instances of heightened and more visible State repression, is that of two-tour Iraq veteran Scott Olsen, a member of Veterans for Peace and Iraq Veterans Against The War. The marine veteran was shot by Oakland California Police with a projectile, while protestors were violently dispersed during an Occupy march in late October. The Huffington Post reports that activists “staged [the] march through downtown Oakland in response to a violent police raid on the Occupy Oakland encampment earlier [on the 25th], during which officers rained tear gas and rubber bullets on the activists in an effort to clear the camp.” Olsen was struck by a gas or smoke canister, discharged by Oakland Police. The projectile struck him in the head; as a result, he suffered a skull fracture.[9] Fortunately, Olsen was released from the hospital on November 13, and is recovering.[10] 

Incidentally, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, giving estimates of the U.S. Veterans Administration, there are some “107,000 veterans [who] are homeless on any given night”, though the number of those who might experience homelessness could approximately double over the course of a year. “Only eight percent of the general population can claim veteran status, but nearly one-fifth of the homeless population are veterans.”[11] Staggering, really, and disgraceful to be sure.   

“A tent city that is about survival will be shut down, while a tent city that is about protesting Wall Street fat cats survives”[12] Dvorak incredulously writes. She failed to note, that Occupy D.C., and the many other encampments, are about survival (albeit an ascribed survival), otherwise people certainly wouldn’t be living there for months on end, including some who are homeless, and face police harassment.

Dvorak is quite right, in the broader context; the corporate-government, including of course the media––a domain of artifice where lies become truth, ownership thereof which is controlled rigidly by a few corporate conglomerates that own the entire mass media system and by and large regulate themselves as they see fit, or unfit––will not endure a cotemporary Hooverville, or shantytowns constructed by the homeless like those during the Great Depression near the white house, or anywhere else that is highly visible to the business class, tourists, and the general public at large. Not for long anyway. Perhaps that threshold has been passed, or will soon pass, evinced by the police crackdowns in New York, Boston, Oakland, the involvement of the Department of Homeland Security, and so forth. Dvorak is ostensibly suggesting that threshold be crossed––either way, it seems a truly contemptuous notion, under the guise of some sort of higher ideal. Popular struggle and activism is beyond the juncture of offering burden of proof.  

“The media spectacle” writes Dvorak, “the outrage across the left-leaning land that follows every crackdown of Occupy protests across America––where is it when the same thing happens every day for folks who truly have nowhere to go?”[13] The entire Occupy Movement is a real response to, among a whole plague of problems, the financial system that in many cases, negligently and criminally foreclosed on millions of homeowners, which arguably lead to more homelessness. The real unemployment rate is hovering well above 10%. That any one political issue or problem could somehow be distinct from the essence of the Occupy movement in general, is rather unbelievable. Ostensibly, Dvorak means the upwards of 3.5 million (give or take) people in the U.S. who might experience homelessness every year. Indeed, what of the “folks who truly have nowhere to go?” How many houses and apartments sit vacant? Why not fill these abandoned lots? The indignation across the “left-leaning land”, meaning those troublemakers advocating political and social change on multiple fronts, utilizing varied tactics, is seemingly alive and well. Perhaps Dvorak is confusing the commercial media, controlled by the elites, the 1%, with popular public opinion and righteous anger. Incidentally, public opinion is highly monitored, not because the elite class desires to manage society according to the wishes of the citizenry. Rather to facilitate a much more sophisticated method of inculcation and indoctrination. The social conditioning apparatus seems to be working, remarkably well. This could be tragic, should the prospects of a decent future be taken seriously.          

“It could be powerful”, Dvorak asserts, “to hold up these camps as shameful shantytowns of the Great Recession. Only they’re not. They’re more Woodstock than Hooverville. So much energy is going into occupying this space that a righteous, political message with a potential to effect real social change has become a temper tantrum about staying in the park.”[14] Notwithstanding Dvorak’s sensationalism, it’s not merely a matter of occupying space is it? It’s a matter of, among many other aims, real community building, and developing a sustainable grassroots movement, a way of life––something that must threaten the centers of power, for they are so accustomed to destroying communities and alienating people generally, as would be expected of any tyranny that regiments to varying degrees, any given aspect of cultural life.

Dvorak fails to be mindful, that whatever the future of Occupy in terms of geographic space, the potential to effect real social change has been inherent in the Occupy Movement since the beginning of the protests over two months ago. There have been plenty of protests about political and social justice that do not garner any attention. A movement is rather different isn’t it? Though, to be sure, a large part of the corporate media coverage of the crackdowns of the Occupy movement, as with so many other real, serious, newsworthy items, becomes more like a spectacle. Corporate news has an affinity to manufacture sensationalist pieces meant to deter from the original significance of a breaking story or barbed political or civil problem. As a spectacle, the news is then no longer about the overall message of Occupy, but of, for instance, Occupy protestors fighting to remain, or regain occupancy of public-private space. At great costs, the real discussion is never held. Real social change, like its conduit, democracy, is more emergent than static. Dvorak also fails to even breach the problem of restrictions placed on civil liberties, including the right to peacefully assemble. The Patriot Act and the Patriot Act II should suffice as examples to serve as an indicator of how authoritarianism works in the background in a post-industrial imperial society. In a car culture, it would be illegal to obstruct traffic––even after the police closed down the street! I shall put such matters aside.   

Though perhaps stigmatic to mention, at least several homeless are living in McPherson Square in D.C. with, or alongside (if we must insist on separating people by any number of divisional identifiers) Occupy protestors, a fact that was omitted from Dvorak’s article. They presumably enjoy all the necessities, i.e. food, water, etc., that Occupy D.C. has to offer. However, I may be somewhat misleading; is it not possible that some of the Occupy protestors are indeed homeless themselves, albeit converts of circumstance so to speak? Apparently the notion didn’t occur to Dvorak, or if it did, it somehow didn’t fit in her narrative. In a way than, the tent cities are all encompassing. A homeless person could occupy, as well a millionaire, though the latter might arguably find familiar accommodations, more suitable elsewhere. Assuredly, the homeless are the hardest hit victims of the corporate State; in terms of police harassment, there is certainly a harbinger of civil rights, namely, the right of the police to harass anyone who is homeless, whom probably does not have an advocate, let alone someone to care for them; forsaken, they endure, or perish. With the indefinite presence of Occupy protestors, arguably there is less risk for the Homeless to be victimized by the police and the State generally. Indefinite being the operant word, there being much doubt in the overall outcome. Homelessness is certainly a problem which falls into the many folds of Occupy. For surely, the homeless, are the 99%. The same may not be said of Bloomberg.

An editorial in the Washington Post applauded New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s consignment to “clear Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park.” “From the start, Mr. Bloomberg expressed a commitment to the First Amendment rights of protestors, but he also stressed the importance of guaranteeing public health and safety.”[15] The rhetoric, while meant to distort, is not without irony. Even in the richest, most militarily powerful and aggressive empire in the world, there are enormous gaps of public health and safety, similar to the enormous fissures between the wealthiest 1% and the poorest. Contrary to what was written in the editorial, the effort, or at least one aspect of the effort of state crackdown on the protests, and the clearing of encampments, is certainly to “end the protest or to squelch its message about the concentration of economic and political power.” It’s all relatively political. It seems one reason for the intolerance, the reactive aggression of the Occupy protests, and the desire to see an end to the Movement in general, is the real potential that businesses, namely monopolistic ones, will be adversely impacted. Somewhat ironic, given that within an inverted context; deregulation, or more accurately, preferential regulation harms small, local businesses and communities, though the contrary is claimed.    

The Great Recession, which was architected by the financiers, executives, politicians, and bureaucrats in corporate power, the same elite class that “fixes” (what an operant term, fix) the ongoing economic fiasco, has been a rallying cry for people of conscious, long before the inception of the Occupy Movement. “In a recent approximation USA Today estimated 1.6 million people unduplicated persons used transitional housing or emergency shelters.  Of these people, approximately 1/3 are members of households with children, a nine percent increase since 2007.  Another approximation is from a study done by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty which states that approximately 3.5 million people, 1.35 million of them children, are likely to experience homelessness in a given year”.[16]

Executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty Maria Foscarinis, succinctly stated that “[t]here is definitely irony in cases where occupiers are allowed to remain in locations from which homeless people are being forced out”. “Occupiers have a right to protest inequality, but people most directly affected by that inequality don’t have a right simply to exist in public places” Foscarinis added.[17] Arguably, in concurrence with international law, people most directly distressed by inequality do indeed have the rights they are systemically denied; a catch 22 in contemporary culture, and of course criminal. So long as there is one homeless person, the United States is breaking international law; meaning 365 days every year. Perhaps that’s an absurd and inflammatory avowal. Though it would be nonetheless true, that is, if the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and international law generally, holds connotation beyond literary form, and beyond arbitrary discretion by signatories. Incidentally, the same would be true of food and medical care. According to article 25 of the UDHR of which the U.S. is a signatory: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself[herself] and his[her] family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his[her] control.”[18] [Emphasis added].    

Marta Beresin, a lawyer for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless stated that “the Occupy movements are about the fact that capitalist democracy has failed 99 percent of people by concentrating most of the wealth of this country in the hands of 1 percent of the people”. “The protestors are saying that’s not acceptable, and we need a different political and economic system in order to change that” Beresin added.[19] A different political and economic arrangement, meaning, one not contained within the republicans and democrats, whom essentially operate as two wings of the one Business party, with slight, however significant, changes between policies and actions. Some 60% members of the Senate and 40% members of the House are millionaires. When millionaires represent a rough 1.5% of the overall population as a demographic, why is it that the rich have disproportionate representation? Does it have anything to do with the fact that the top 1% owns the vast amount of wealth?

To even suggest that a popular movement against political and economic inequality has had its 15 minutes and is no longer legitimate, is indicative of where the authors interests lie, namely within the corporate-governmental establishment, itself responsible for gross political and economic inequalities among a mass grave of injustices. The Occupy Movement was bound from the beginning, with challenges. Its perseverance is owed in part, to dedicated individuals and widespread organizing. Social and political struggle demands participation, else we are all victimized by the elites, without a watchdog to our defense. The Occupy movement is a great start in carrying on the legacy. It’s just a start though. For eventually, Americans will have to make a choice. There must be an unwavering revolutionary movement if we are to break free from the shackles of corporate dominance. Should this be something we collectively choose, the prospects for a decent future improve tremendously. How much of what we read, hear, or see is not owned by a few corporate conglomerates? Are we really so passive, or would we prefer to be so obedient, that we would desire to see the real, and in many ways the only, counter to the highly concentrated systems of power, fade to the annals of arbitrated history? Does not the current power structure, going back well over thirty years, demand to be seriously investigated and challenged? How convenient it would be for the rich, for the private and governmental centers of power if the Occupy Movement were extinguished. How unfortunate for them, that ostensibly, this is one flame that cannot be doused out. 

 

 

NOTES:


[1] "Tent Cities in America A Pacific Coast Report," National Coalition for the Homeless (March, 2010): 6, http://www.nationalhomeless.org/publications/Tent Cities Report FINAL 3-10-10.pdf (accessed November 19, 2011).

[2] Petula Dvorak, "Occupy D.C.: Is it time to tear down these tents?," The Washington Post ( November 17 2011), http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/occupy-dc-isnt-it-time-to-tear-down-these-tents/2011/11/17/gIQAJ4W1VN_story.html (accessed November 22, 2011).

[3] "New Report: It's Illegal to Be Homeless in America," National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (November 15, 2011), http://www.nlchp.org/news.cfm?id=170 (accessed November 19, 2011).

[4] "Criminalizing Crisis: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities," National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (November 2011): 6, http://www.nlchp.org/content/pubs/11.14.11 Criminalization Report & Advocacy Manual, FINAL1.pdf (accessed November 19, 2011).

[5] "HUNGER AND HOMELESSNESS SURVEY," U.S. Conference of Mayors (December 2009): 1, http://www.usmayors.org/pressreleases/uploads/USCMHungercompleteWEB2009.pdf (accessed November 19, 2011).

[6] See Note 1; pg 7

[7] See Note 1; pg 8

[8] See Note 2

[9] Jason Cherkis, "Oakland Police Critically Injure Iraq War Vet During Occupy March ," The Huffington Post (10/26/11 Updated: 10/27/11), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/26/iraq-vet-oakland-police-tear-gas_n_1033159.html (accessed November 19, 2011).

[10] Melissa Bell, "Scott Olsen, injured Occupy Oakland protester: ‘We’ll see you in our streets’," Blog Post; the Washington Post (11/14/2011), http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/blogpost/post/scott-olsen-injured-occupy-oakland-protester-well-see-you-in-our-streets/2011/11/14/gIQATfwILN_blog.html

(accessed November 19, 2011).

[11] "Background & Statistics," National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (Last Updated 2011), http://www.nchv.org/background.cfm (accessed November 19, 2011).

[12] See Note 2

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] First Editorial, "Officials should prepare for closing Occupy D.C. encampments," The Washington Post (November 16 2011), http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/officials-should-prepare-for-closing-occupy-dc-encampments/2011/11/16/gIQA9RoVSN_print.html (accessed November 22, 2011).

[16] National Coalition for the Homeless, "How Many People Experience Homelessness?." Last modified July 2009. Accessed November 22, 2011. http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/How_Many.html.

[17] See Note 2

[18] United Nations: Office of the High Comissioner for Human Rights , "Universal Declaration of Human Rights." Last modified 10 December 1948. Accessed November 19, 2011. http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/RESOLUTION/GEN/NR0/043/88/IMG/NR004388.pdf?OpenElement

[19] See Note 2

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