Homeless may comprise almost one third of 'Occupy' protesters

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - When heeding advice from organizers on how to occupy Washington, D.C., before the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations went into effect, national activist David Swanson was told by Spanish protesters to "keep your occupation to two weeks or fewer, or it will turn into a homeless encampment."

Swanson and the other organizers didn't follow this advice. The results have challenged people's assumptions about the political participation of homeless people and raised thought-provoking questions for the Occupy Movement itself.

The homeless actually may have the least to lose - and feel they have the most to gain from being involved in the Occupy Movement.

Primarily, the homeless 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 economic disparity.

However, 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 organizing, or into aid and services for the homeless," Swanson said. "And with the homeless, you often have those subsections . that have drug and alcohol problems that have disputes that can turn violent. You have a whole array of issues."

Swanson says that 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 Defense 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."

An activist with Occupy Atlanta, Ron Allan, says 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.

© 2011, Catholic Online. Distributed by NEWS CONSORTIUM.