Occupy LA to bring social workers to aid homeless

By Christina Hoag

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Nov. 14 2011 5:10 p.m. MST

Occupy Oakland demonstrator Maurice Porter, who is homeless, sits in defiance in front of a line of police at an encampment in Oakland, Calif., early Monday, Nov. 14, 2011.

Paul Sakuma, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

LOS ANGELES — Occupy Los Angeles is taking a new tack in trying to grapple with the nettlesome issue of the homeless people who have moved into the tent village — social workers.

Volunteer social workers are scheduled to visit the camp surrounding City Hall on Saturday in a bid to help some of the more troubled residents, possibly moving them to facilities better equipped to deal with their problems, said organizer Darren Danks.

"We love their support, but there's a percentage who need social services," he said Monday.

The Occupy movement, formed as a protest of government economic policies perceived to favor the rich, operates with an all-are-welcome policy, and organizers will even try to find a tent for those who lack one. But they admit the homeless have been an unanticipated challenge that has diverted the focus from political activities to keeping internal order.

"It's created disorder in the encampment," said organizer Clark Davis. "It's sort of weakened our stance."

An influx of mentally ill and drug addicted homeless moved into the 485-tent camp soon after it sprang up six weeks ago, drawn by its free meals, toilets and showers, and a largely tranquil community free of police harassment and the strict rules of shelters that many homeless people dislike.

The camp's location at City Hall is only blocks away from Skid Row, where some 800 people bed down on sidewalks nightly and 1,000 others sleep in shelters.

Although the homeless have helped bolster the Occupy movement's ranks and are part of the "99 percent" of the population that it says it represents, some of the more mentally ill have posed problems with cleanliness, disruptiveness and security.

Some political activists have been scared off by them and left the camp, or go home at night instead of staying, Davis said.

Organizers asked several disruptive people to leave of their own accord, but they did not.

Camps from New York to Portland, Ore., have reported similar challenges with homeless campers.

The issue may affect Occupy Los Angeles' food policy.

A rift in the camp has now surfaced among activists who feel food should be reserved for those who contribute to the camp, such as sweeping pathways or serving on a committee, and those who feel it should be available to all, Danks said, noting that some homeless do contribute, while others simply hang out.

Contributors would receive a wristband or some other insignia to signify their eligibility for meals.

An official posting on the camp's website Sunday indicates organizers are leaning toward the hardline stance.

"It should be remembered Occupy Los Angeles has no mandate to serve the homeless," the posting stated. "Food distribution was never intended to become a part of the Occupation Movement, nor is it feasible to add our names to the long list of organizations and agencies that are funded, staffed and structured to serve that purpose."

Decisions in the camp are made by consensus at the camp's nightly General Assembly meeting, which is open to all.

Camper Brian Mendoza, 22, who said he was living in his father's truck before coming to Occupy LA, said it was only fair that campers should contribute in some way to the movement for food. "There's some people who just want to stay here because in Skid Row you have to pick up your tent every day and here you can just leave it," he said.

The issue puts the Occupy movement in the crosshairs of dealing with difficult populations.

The challenges they face are part of the evolution of a protest movement, which must constantly change as issues arise, said T.V. Reed, American studies professor at Washington State University who has written about protest movements. The fact that the camps have to deal with homeless people underscores why the movement was formed.

"Gross economic inequality," Reed said. "That's really what they're talking about."

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