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Duly Noted

Tuesday, Oct 25, 2011, 7:13 am

Homeless Tent Cities as Precursors of Occupy Wall Street

By Lindsay Beyerstein

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Tent city in Reno Nevada, May, 2010.   jkarsh, Creative Commons.

Barbara Ehrenreich has a great article in Mother Jones about how the Occupy movement owes at least as much to the survival strategies of homeless Americans as to protest movements in Europe and the Middle East:

Well before Tahrir Square was a twinkle in anyone's eye, and even before the recent recession, homeless Americans had begun to act in their own defense, creating organized encampments, usually tent cities, in vacant lots or wooded areas. These communities often feature various elementary forms of self-governance: food from local charities has to be distributed, latrines dug, rules—such as no drugs, weapons, or violence—enforced. With all due credit to the Egyptian democracy movement, the Spanish indignados, and rebels all over the world, tent cities are the domestic progenitors of the American occupation movement.

There is nothing "political" about these settlements of the homeless—no signs denouncing greed or visits from left-wing luminaries—but they have been treated with far less official forbearance than the occupation encampments of the "American autumn." LA's Skid Row endures constant police harassment, for example, but when it rained, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had ponchos distributed to nearby Occupy LA.

Ehrenreich notes that Occupy protesters are facing realities that homeless people deal with every day, like how to pee without committing a crime.

USA Today reported last week that homeless protesters are lending survival skills and leadership to Occupy movements in various cities, notably in Atlanta:

The friction between the homeless and the protesters has not been the case in other cities. In Atlanta, for instance, it has been a benefit. The homeless have helped newbie protesters learn how to put up tents that can withstand wind gusts, maintain peace in close quarters and survive the outdoors.

Billy Jones, 28, provides security at the protests. Jones said he's not just looking for free food.

"Don't have the misconception that most homeless people are always out for a meal," Jones said. "I'm here because there are things I can lend that are helpful to the movement. I can get food anywhere. I don't have to be at 'Occupy Atlanta' to get food."

Ehrenreich notes that the Portland, Austin, and Philadelphia branches of the Occupy Movement have embraced homelessness as a core issue.

Occupy Boston is getting survival tips from the local homeless community and homeless protesters are joining the action. Occupy Baltimore hosted members of Faces of Homelessness Speakers' Bureau for a teach-in last week.

Ehrenreich argues that homelessness is a natural issue for the Occupy Movement. It is, after all, the last stop on the path of downward mobility. If you're part of the 99%, you're somewhere along that depressing continuum.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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