Homeless People “Occupy” Philly

There’s the 99 percent, and there’s the one percent. But what about the zeros?

Since Occupy Philly began, I’ve been trying to combat stereotypes about who the protesters are. They’re not teenage, lazy, dirty hippies—they’re people who work full-time, have children, pay taxes, and who care about what happens to their country.

But there’s another reality about who’s at the occupation, at least in our city. At the medic tent, the makeup of the crowd can be discerned through the plastic drawers of our supply bins. Though we loaded up on supplies to combat the effects of police-protester conflict, we haven’t used them. And lately, at least when it comes to the people I’ve seen and spoken to, there’s nothing in those bins that can do much to help.

Take Juan*, for instance. His story is the same as that of a lot of guys who come here from Latin America: You come over, you get a job, you get a bike so you can get to your job. You get paid in cash, you take the cash home to the place you share with a bunch of other guys who just came over. You stuff the cash under the mattress, send some home every week, try to get ahead so you can figure out the next step. You hope your kids will have a different life. You hope that more than anything.

Juan uses a cane to hobble over to the medic tent. He’s probably around 30, thin with dark black hair and a blue T-shirt. He stands next to a chair, looking around casually. He obviously needs to sit down, but doesn’t want to impose. When we ask if we can help with anything, he says he doesn’t speak English and shrugs, as though he has to forfeit his right to sit down. As it turns out, Juan hadn’t known there was a protest at all. Like many people we’ve seen at the medic tent, he’d simply come over because he was hoping to get help.

He tells his story in a half-whisper. He’s shy but laughs easily, and ends every sentence with that self-effacing shrug.

Juan had been riding his bike home at night two months ago and was shot twice—once in the stomach and once in the leg—and then robbed. He was gravely ill, lost his job and lost his spot in his communal house. When he was released from the hospital, he had nowhere to go, so now he’s living on the streets. He can handle it, he says, but he’s been told to change the dressings on his wounds every day, and he’s run out of money to buy new ones. He gingerly lifts his T-shirt and pulls back the large dressing to show his wound to a nurse who’s standing next to me. “You see?” he says. “You have something for this?”

I’m translating, but she’s looking at me hopelessly. “He really needs to change that every day,” she says, grimacing a little. “Seriously.”

Unfortunately, we don’t have large abdominal dressings for shotgun wounds.

Then there’s Janelle. She’s a beautiful pink-cheeked young woman with a big smile. Wearing sweatpants, slippers and a blanket draped over her shoulders, she’s eating a Pop-Tart and telling me about how the birds come back hours later, when people aren’t around, and gather up all her Pop-Tart bits. She’s made quite a study of sparrow behavior since she became homeless a few months ago. She’s been sleeping in various spots, and makes a point to tell me how kind the police officers can be. In fact, even when she’s talking about her awful experiences in foster care and hospitals, she always manages to single out the good things people have done, or the comic moments.

She talks about the intersection of language and culture, and what makes the best anime (she loves Cowboy Bebop) so good. She’s pretty brilliant. I feel like I could learn a lot from her. “What would it take to get you out of homelessness?” I ask her. “I really don’t know,” she says, thoughtfully, throwing more of her Pop-Tart at the birds. “People think when you’re homeless, you don’t have a job. But you do have a job. It’s called Panic. I spend all day panicking about where I’m going to sleep, what I’m going to eat. It’s work.”

Juan and Janelle—I can already hear the objections. Well, did he come here legally? What did she do to get homeless? For the folks in the Occupy movement, that’s not what matters. What matters is that we want to live in a country where these two people exist. Right now we don’t live in that country. So we’re trying to change it.

*Names and certain identifying details have been changed.