It’s Monday night, a few minutes before Occupy Philly’s 7 p.m. General Assembly, and the 7-week-old encampment is in complete disarray. The large cardboard sign detailing Occupy’s working groups lay twisted and torn on the ground. Sagging and collapsed tents dot the concrete. Cruddy furniture, piles of dirty clothes and other debris litter the ground.
As the GA gets under way, rain begins to fall on the 50 or so Occupiers—and a couple TV news crews—gather to learn whether or not the city is going to grant Occupy Philly a permit to move the camp across the street to Thomas Paine Plaza. The news isn’t good. But despite everything collapsing around them, Occupy facilitators stubbornly hold fast to GA process and protocol—maybe the only thing they have left. As a woman starts to read the city’s proposal, another facilitator interrupts to call for the group to vote on whether she should read the entire permit or just give a summary.
At the front of the group, a black woman holding an umbrella began to shout: “Stop stalling, stop stalling!”
Another vote is called whether the GA should move inside to get out of the rain.
“This is bullshit, get to the fuckin’ point!” the woman screams.
“We need to get to a dry area,” a facilitator responds.
“Dry area my ass—it’s gonna be fuckin’ wet when you don’t have no tent city no more, so stop this bullshit and just tell us what they offered!”
The news cameras swing away from the facilitators and toward the woman. “Occupy Philly is bullshit!” she continues to shout.
“She’s just some crazy homeless lady,” mutters a bearded Occupier.
A few other Occupiers approach the woman, quietly pleading for her to calm down. One offers her a cigarette. “Get away from me,” she yells. “I don’t want no cigarette, I want to know what’s going on!”
The GA disbands, relocating to the nearby Friends Center to continue the proceedings (where Occupiers would eventually learn the city’s final offer: a permit for daily demonstrations at Paine Plaza from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., but no more 24/7 camping). The woman refuses to follow, skulking back to her tent at the north end of City Hall and shouting to no one in particular. “This is bullshit! Occupy Philly playin’ games ’cause they got somewhere to go when this is over. Where the fuck am I gonna go? I got nowhere to go.”
Twenty minutes later, standing in the cold drizzle, she’s slightly more calm. She says her name is Charlene. She’s 49, and has been living in Love Park and the subway concourse below Dilworth Plaza on and off for years. She says she’s angry, not crazy. She says that despite getting food, a tent, blankets and clothes from Occupy Philly since the second week of October, she feels exploited by the movement. She insists Occupy Philly reached out to the homeless to join the movement only so they could swell their numbers, not because they were looking out for them.
“They capitalized on the homeless,” she says. “All these tents out here—if it wasn’t for the homeless there wouldn’t be half these tents and nobody would’ve taken them seriously in the first place.
“They begged us to come here and be part of this. They came down to the subway and to Love Park and told us they would give us tents and food and somewhere to sleep during the day without being hassled by the cops. So now there’s more homeless people out here than anything. Then all the Occupy Philly people left and now we’re just left out here. They left us stranded to deal with this.”
Charlene’s not the only one who feels that way.
“They blew a trumpet call for everyone to charge and then they go back to their house and their warm beds and the homeless are sitting here taking the brunt of things,” says 28-year-old Kevin Murphy, who’s sitting on a nearby bench. He’s been homeless for six months, and has been living at the Occupy encampment for several weeks. He wonders whether Occupy Philly embraced the homeless at the outset as a sort of cowardly exit strategy.
“All those people started this, and then they left the homeless and just a handful of true-blue Occupiers to actually fight the fight and deal with the consequences when the riot cops come in,” says Murphy.
“In other places they’re [pepper] spraying ’em like mice,” says a man sitting next to Murphy who declines to give his name. “I hope it doesn’t come to that. A lot of us are brittler and weaker than that because we are homeless. They’ll come in here and do what they want.”
Sitting in a beat-up office chair below Dilworth Plaza, tucked just inside an arch to stay out of the rain, Keith, 52, says he feels like the homeless are being scapegoated for the encampment’s deteriorating health and safety conditions. “Occupy blames us, Nutter blames us, the papers blame us. Everybody blames us. But what else is new? I ain’t sayin homeless people aren’t pissin’ and shittin’ out here, but it’s everybody. College kids, too.”