Dissenting, or Seeking Shelter? Homeless Stake a Claim at Protests
Robert Gaffney, who came here from Oklahoma 10 years ago, settled on a scrap of burlap the other day on a grassy hill outside City Hall, surveying the tents and crowd that make up Occupy Los Angeles. For many of his neighbors at City Hall Park, this is a center of protest and political grievance. For Mr. Gaffney, it is the latest piece of land that he calls home.
In Atlanta, the Occupy movement moved into a shelter.
It is, he said, more comfortable than the sidewalk in Hollywood that he has been living on for the last few months. It is safer and less sketchy than Skid Row, the homeless colony a few blocks away.
“It’s different here,” said Mr. Gaffney, 31. “I find myself getting sleep. Interesting conversation.” He held up a pair of dirty socks. “But I haven’t figured out how to do laundry.”
Mr. Gaffney is hardly an unusual presence in the Occupy demonstrations across the country these days. From Los Angeles to Wall Street, from Denver to Boston, homeless men and women have joined the protesters in large numbers, or at least have settled in beside them for the night. While the economic deprivation they suffer might symbolize the grievance at the heart of this protest, they have come less for the cause than for what they almost invariably describe as an easier existence. There is food, as well as bathrooms, safety, company and lots of activity to allow them to pass away their days
“When the tents went up, everybody moved in,” Douglas Marra, a homeless person in Denver, said. “They knew they could get stuff for free.”
But their presence is posing a mounting quandary for protesters and the authorities, and divisions have arisen among protesters across the country about how much, if at all, to embrace the interlopers. The rising number of homeless, many of them suffering from mental disorders, has made it easier for Occupy’s opponents to belittle the movement as vagrant and lawless and has raised the pressure on municipal authorities to crack down.
In Atlanta on Saturday, demonstrators who had been thrown out of Woodruff Park by the police moved into upper floors of the Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter in a full-scale embrace of the cause of the 600 residents who live below them. It gave the demonstration more of a political focus, and not incidentally expanded its size.
“The homeless bring numbers,” said Alex Smith Jr., 50, a former repairman who lives at the shelter and joined the protests. “They bring a voice.”
But in places like Nashville, New York, Los Angeles and Oakland, Calif., protesters talk about feeling unsafe because of the presence of homeless people.
“There are a lot of them here that have mental problems and that need help. They are in the wrong place,” said Jessica Anderson, 22, who is herself homeless, sitting with friends on a tarp at the Los Angeles site. “They have been creating more problems. There was one guy who showed up last night and he would not shut up: Saying all kinds of crazy stuff all night.”