Rafael Cruz has been on the streets for four years — often catching free dinner from a mobile soup kitchen at McPherson Square before settling in for the night on the steps of a local church.
Cruz said he can work and can earn up to a couple hundred dollars a week doing odd jobs. But the 50-year-old welder said he can’t afford a $500-a-month apartment, and he was convinced that few of those in suits who walk past him each day care.
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.”
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.”
The “occupiers” provide the homeless with clothing, free medical help, food donated by area restaurants, and the opportunity to participate in forums and teach-ins. In turn, the veterans of the street help protesters, many of whom were raised in the suburbs, survive the outdoors.
Two homeless men made their way to McPherson Square last week to warn campers that they should fortify their tents with bales of hay because the park becomes a “wind tunnel” during fall and winter storms.
“They need to come up with something to get them through the winter,” said a homeless man, who would identify himself only as Steve. “People need to take them seriously, so we have to come up with a plan.”
But the camps include families with children, and police have begun to worry about their safety, noting that some homeless people have a history of mental illness. A homeless man pulled a knife last week when some demonstrators urged him to leave McPherson Square after he became disruptive, according to the National Park Service and Occupy D.C. organizers.
D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), chairman of the Human Services Committee, is concerned that the homeless will get used to the tents. “We put a lot of money in this city into homeless shelters and support and temporary housing,” Graham said. “I want people sleeping in apartments, not tents.”
Yet, with an 11.1 percent unemployment rate in the District and more than 25,000 people on a waiting list for public housing, a permanent home remains out of reach for many of the city’s homeless. And if they are not working, some have decided they should be marching.
After being tripped up by a previous drug addiction, Larry Foster has spent five years sleeping at a shelter on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Southeast. When he read about the protests two weeks ago, Foster went to McPherson Square and found someone willing to give him a tent.
“Out here, people care and have a heart,” said Foster, 54, who helps to keep the park clean and participates in demonstrations. “When I came and saw it, I had to get involved, because my grandkids are not going to have anything. No Social Security, because the rich live while the poor suffer and die.”
Five blocks away was David Jackson, who also recently left a shelter to set up a tent he refers to as his “house” in Freedom Plaza. “We are now together for justice,” said Jackson, 62.
Not all of the homeless downtown are embracing the protesters. Some see those who sleep in designer tents and use a solar generator to power their computers and smartphones as naive. Others are certain that the movement will fizzle in a few weeks when cold weather sets in.
“Their hearts are in the right place, but they are going up against big dogs, and they are the Chihuahua,” said Frosty Bibbee, 57, who has been homeless since July 1, when he quit his job with a carnival.
Robert Brown, 51, who said he has been homeless for six months, questioned why the Park Service has decided not to enforce the ban on camping in downtown parks.
“If we had set up tents, the police would be here in a second, and they just come and get to do what they want,” Brown said.
Patricia Mullahy Fugere, executive director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, also sees “a double standard” by the Park Service. But Fugere hopes that the protesters remain because she thinks they are creating a platform “for discussion about those who are on the lowest public tier.”
Fely Neill has lived at McPherson Square for three years. Asked how long she wants the protesters to remain, she said: “As long as they pay rent.”
“It feels safer now with everybody,” said Neill, 50, as she showed off a new poncho she had just received from a protester.