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Shelter no more

Occupiers cope with homeless at Burnside

As the Occupy movement blankets the nation, its vague but wide-ranging message has appealed to thousands, drawing in participants of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds. With its sprawling encampments, where members have been handing out both food and tents to anyone interested in spending the night, the movement has also appealed to a particularly disadvantaged portion of the 99 percent: the homeless.

But as the movement continues into its third month, encampments are making changes to deal with what is rapidly becoming a tragedy of the commons.

Of the Occupiers currently residing in Burnside Park in downtown Providence, an estimated 45 to 55 percent are homeless, media tent volunteer Rob Greyfox told The Herald in October. That percentage includes people living in communal "group homes" and those who have homes but come to the camp to eat, according to Occupier Michael McCarthy.

Those numbers also include homeless people who were living in the park prior to the Occupation. "The park's always been a large part of the homeless community," said John Joyce, co-director of the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project. "This park has been occupied before you got Occupiers."

James and Willie Paycheck, Providence residents and brothers, set up camp in Burnside Park Oct. 15, the first night of the Occupation, having recently been evicted from their home. When Willie first arrived at the camp, he was "struggling," he told The Herald Oct. 20. The camp's residents placed someone outside his tent to check in on his health and well-being.

"Now that's what I call ‘Occupy,'" he said.

The Paychecks, like many other homeless people residing in the park, said they were drawn to the protest by its political message rather than the availability of food and lodging. And other encampments that have set up in less public areas — places that did not house many, if any, homeless residents prior to the protest — have seen homeless people join the movement more for its message than for its resources.

Occupy Pittsburgh protesters set up camp in a park owned by BNY Mellon Bank, a "very visible, centrally located green space in downtown Pittsburgh," said Jeff Cech, a member of the protest in that city. The political goals of the Occupy movement attract the homeless population, he said.

"We're standing up for the people who lost their homes due to foreclosures," he said. "We're standing up for people who have been wronged by the corruption and greed in our banking system and in our economic system in general," he said.

James Holmes of New Orleans, La., said he does not consider himself an Occupy Providence member, but he sympathizes with the movement.

Holmes spends the night on a bench in Burnside Park when he visits Providence. Though he is not participating in the movement, he said, "If they're doing the work right, I'm all for it. We need help." But when asked if he had considered borrowing a tent from the Occupiers or visiting the food tent, Holmes was adamant: "I don't need it," he said. "When I want it, I go get it myself."

But this is not the case for all homeless people passing through the park. Until this week, a tent in the center of Burnside provided food to the park's residents, including those who weren't specifically part of the protest. The food tent ran mainly on donations from local restaurants and organizations. Occupiers dismantled the tent, along with media and information tents, this week to comply with the city's routine maintenance of the park's sprinkler system. Protesters will also have to move their individual tents to hard ground for several hours while city contractors complete the procedure.

But Occupiers do not plan to set up the food tent again after the project is finished. Not only is the tent not receiving as many donations as before, but food provisions have become more of a public service than intended, McCarthy said. Because of Burnside Park's proximity to Kennedy Plaza, bus users began taking advantage of the free food.

"People were going to show up expecting it," McCarthy said. "And they were going to either get violent or crawl into a tent."

"It's a natural progression — how to stay open and available to everyone without necessarily enabling negative or dangerous behaviors," said McCarthy, who added he does not know how the camp plans to operate in coming weeks. "We're going to see if we're able to provide for each other in simpler ways," he said. "That's going to be something they work on now."

Local organizations that work with the homeless have also expressed concern. "Homeless people staying in tents in Burnside Park is probably not the best thing," said Jim Ryczek, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless. "It's almost an enabling issue."

Occupiers have been very open to working with the coalition, Joyce said. In its current incarnation, the encampment is "almost a shelter," he said. "But they weren't prepared to be a shelter."

"You can't really tell people not to do what they shouldn't be doing, but I told the Occupation, ‘Don't make it easy for people,'" he said. Now, Occupiers ask people requesting tents and food a series of questions before determining whether or not to offer their services. If they determine someone to be homeless, they call Joyce, who then attempts to connect that person with the services they require.

The homeless — many of whom are mentally ill — are "some of the people that the system has either failed or has not been able to pull into care," Ryczek said. "So having them stay off the grid, per se, is not a great thing for them — the system needs to do a better job of outreaching to them where they are."

Mental illness, coupled with the drug and alcohol problems that plague many homeless people, have also resulted in conflicts with other Occupiers, McCarthy said. At the beginning of the Occupation, "things had gotten better" in the park, he said. But as the food and lodging in Burnside have drawn people to the park in increasing numbers, more and more incidents have occurred where protesters have had to "put pressure on people not to do drugs or sell drugs in the park," he said, adding that there has been a rash of physical fights. "Working with those folks has been difficult," he said.


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