Tina Fineberg, Associated Press
NEW YORK — It was only a few nights after the Occupy protesters began sleeping in his church sanctuary when Pastor Bob Brashear realized that his laptop was missing.
The refugees from Manhattan's Zuccotti Park had found their way to his cavernous Presbyterian church on a cold winter evening, hoping to stay for a few nights, maybe longer. It was the latest stopover for the nomadic group, which has been living in a rotating series of churches since Mayor Michael Bloomberg shut down their camp in November.
"There was a sense of shock and sadness that it had happened," said Brashear, whose laptop will soon be replaced by Occupy organizers. "And there's a common understanding that if there's one more theft in the church, that's it."
This is what the Occupy encampment has become: A band of homeless protesters with no place to go. Amid accusations of drug use and sporadic theft, they've been sleeping on church pews for weeks, consuming at least $20,000 of the funds that Occupy Wall Street still has in its coffers. Their existence is being hotly debated at Occupy meetings: Are these people truly "Occupiers" who deserve free food and a roof over their heads?
"We don't do this out of charity," said 34-year-old Ravi Ahmad, who works for Columbia University and volunteers with Occupy in her spare time. "We do this so that whoever wants to work in the movement can work in the movement. This is a meritocracy."
But money is draining rapidly from Occupy's various bank accounts, which currently amount to about $344,000. Including church maintenance costs and meals, living expenses are more than $2,000 per week.
"We are all aware that the NYPD destroyed the tent homes of many Occupiers in just one night," one Occupier recently wrote on www.nycga.net, Occupy's General Assembly website for New York City. "However, where were they living before Zuccotti Park? Are we paying for housing for homeless people who may be relocated to City shelters?"
The movement that denounces corporate greed and economic inequality has been fighting to stay afloat in the city where it first began. Media attention and donations have dropped off. And although protesters regularly meet to plan demonstrations, recent marches have had none of the spectacle that captivated New Yorkers and watchers worldwide.
On Monday, the metal barricades surrounding Zuccotti Park were removed for the first time since the November raid. But protesters still can't set up tents to camp overnight — and they don't have a long-term solution to the housing problem.
Their current home is Brashear' West-Park Presbyterian Church, a stately 100-year-old house of worship on the Upper West Side that badly needs renovation. Occupy organizers see the cracks in the ceiling as an opportunity to repay the favor by helping to fix the place up.
There are about 70 Occupiers staying there and another 30 or so at Park Slope United Methodist Church in Brooklyn.
"Everybody tries to get along, make things work," said Donna Marinelli, 52, of New Britain, Conn., who was sitting on the floor in a sleeping bag alongside her cousin, David Monarca. "We were in the park in tents until they raided us. We wanted to stay for the movement. We didn't want to leave when we just got here."
During the daylight hours, Marinelli attends Occupy events and volunteers at an Occupy kitchen in Brooklyn. Nobody is allowed to stay in the church during the day. At night, the place is patrolled by an Occupy security team led by Marine Corps Sgt. Halo Showzah, a 27-year-old Iraq war veteran from the Bronx.
"We walk around the church with flashlights, making noise to wake these people up and making sure they're good," he said. "No sex in the church, no drinking, no smoking, no shooting, no sniffing."
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