But three weeks ago, Cruz noticed several young adults putting down camping gear in the park in downtown Washington and making political signs that he related to. And, as the normally quiet park became a bustling Occupy D.C. compound, Cruz found himself wanting to join them because he thinks elected officials care more about the rich than the poor.
“If Barack Obama did what he was supposed to do, we wouldn’t be in this shape,” Cruz said as he ate a few cups of stew from Martha’s Table. “He put the money for schools and jobs and he put it in Wall Street. . . . I’m waiting for a tent because I want to go protest.”
More than any other group in the District, the occupation movements are affecting many of the city’s estimated 6,500 homeless — most of whom sleep on the streets or in emergency shelters. Although protests are routine in the nation’s capital, it’s not every day that demonstrators rally in someone’s bedroom.
In growing numbers, the city’s homeless are embracing the 100-plus tents at Occupy D.C. in McPherson Square and the smaller Stop the Machine encampment at Freedom Plaza. With the Occupy Wall Street movements decrying what they labelcorporate greed, protesters said the stories behind the District’s homeless are emblematic of a political and economic system failing the lower class.
Although some of the homeless resent the newcomers’ claim on the park, many said the new neighbors are doing what city leaders have struggled to do for years. The protesters are raising awareness while boosting their quality of life by bringing a sense of security and community to an otherwise cruel existence, many of the homeless said.
“It’s a good cause, and I hope they are here for months,” said Lynwood Baylor, 64, who sleeps in a shelter but sits on a bench in McPherson Square during the day. “This is the first time I have seen so many people [at the park] for the same thing. There really is strength in numbers.”
Sharing stories, resources
But as the homeless join the protests — out of political principle or the lure of a free meal and shelter — local and federal officials are growing uneasy over the tent cities.
“How do you tell the difference between homeless and protester?” asked Lt. Mike Libby of the U.S. Park Police, which is trying to determine how long the camps can remain.
With demonstrations in their fourth week, organizers at both camps seemed prepared to keep fighting economic disparity into the winter.
“We have learned, living like a homeless person in the park, what services they were not provided before,” said John Armstrong, 23, an Occupy D.C. organizer and Boston College graduate. “We teach them the knowledge we have and share stories.”