Some Portland homeless find purpose with OccupyMaine

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PORTLAND — “We are the 99 percent” – a pluralist slogan against the wealthiest of the economic elite – has become the rallying cry of the Occupy Wall Street movement, including Portland’s OccupyMaine.

That “99 percent” includes a lot of people, none more at the bottom of the socioeconomic heap than the homeless, many of whom have joined the Portland protesters.

“Without this, half of us would be wandering the streets looking unimportant” said Mike Jacobs, an occupier who was homeless “off-and-on,” he said, for years before settling at the group’s tent city in Lincoln Park. “Here, everyone is equal and we’re all important.”

As of Monday, there were 58 tents pitched in Lincoln Park. Many tents house two or more people, and occupiers estimate that between 75 and 100 people sleep in the park every night. Most activists said just more than half those people were homeless before they settled at camp. A few put that number even higher.

At the camp, homeless people can settle into a tent with a warm sleeping bag. They can eat food at an overflowing communal kitchen, where meals are cooked several times a day. They can visit the camp library or the medical tent, where a licensed nurse is often on hand. Everyone who takes part is expected to pitch in, but no one is turned away.

Jacobs, a former U.S. Marine, said he has been camping at Lincoln Park for a week. A California native, he said he came to Portland a few months ago. He used to have a girlfriend that he stayed with, but he said he’d end up on the streets every time they got into a fight.

Jacobs said he’d spent a few days at Preble Street Resource Center shelter, and while he was grateful, he didn’t like having to stay there.

“No one feels like they belong at a shelter,” Jacobs said. “This seemed like the place to be to get our voices heard.”

Alan Porter, an out-of-work Portland arborist and full-time occupier, said the activists have accepted many homeless people. “We give them a tent, treat them like everyone else,” he said. “It’s part of what we do.”

Porter has been involved with OccupyMaine since the group emerged on Oct. 1. During its early stages, there was some debate about whether and how to absorb homeless people – who had been sleeping in Lincoln Park long before the activists brought tents and oodles of food – into the movement.

To Porter, it made perfect sense to include them, and it fit in with the ideology of the Occupy movement.

“With the abundance of resources we have in this country, how can we have a homelessness problem?,” he said.

Amanda St. John also has been part of OccupyMaine since the beginning. She said that when camp was first established, some occupiers were upset because homeless people were passing through and eating food without joining the occupation.

Any divide between activists with homes and homeless activists is long settled, she said. But the influx of homeless people has temporarily shifted the group’s direction from daily protests and events to a camp-centered approach, with less visible action.

“I don’t think people had anticipated taking on the role of substance abuse councilor or therapist,” St. John said. “But that’s been a necessity of who’s been coming in.”

Other activists agreed, and said they’ve seen occupiers who were alcoholics or drug abusers go clean since getting involved in camp, though those reports couldn’t be verified.

St. John, who works for the Greater Portland Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that having homeless people involved in the movement has only made the activists – homeless or not – more dedicated to the cause. The group had a meeting this week where members renewed their commitment to the ideals of Occupy Wall Street, and to political protest.

“People become even more politicized when faced with these problems,” she said.

Betsy Whitman, a community organizer at Preble Street, said she knows that many of the people who seek out that group’s services are also involved with the protesters in Lincoln Park.

“When I talk to people here at the Day Center, they say they feel engaged with Occupy,” Whitman said. “I know they go there and participate, they go to meetings. … There are some common issues that homeless people face that Occupy Wall Street is addressing. The economic situation in the U.S. is something we’re all trying to address.”

Whitman said Preble Street employees talked about going to Lincoln Park and making contact with the homeless people there, but that hasn’t happened. And while a long-established agency like Preble Street may be best suited to help the homeless, she said it doesn’t take rocket science to feed the hungry.

“Providing support for homeless people any which way is a good thing,” she said.

Over the last month, most of OccupyMaine’s energy has been focused on readying camp for winter. The city has indicated it will allow the activists to stay as long as they are prepared for Maine’s cold snap.

City officials want to see a fire and safety plan, a plan for staying warm and plans for stewardship of the park. OccupyMaine responded last week, and promised to deliver a finalized plan by Tuesday.

While most of the activists’ attention has been on the park, they stress that the campers are not the only members of OccupyMaine. Some live at home, but come to General Assembly every night, they said.

“Anyone who drops off food, anyone who honks their horns and scream ‘You guys rule!’ – They’re OccupyMaine,” said Shane Blodgett of Augusta, who has been camping since Columbus Day Weekend and previously was homeless. “There are a lot more of them than there are of us here at camp.”

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or mmoretto@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.

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Mike Jacobs, a former Marine, was homeless off and on for several years before joining OccupyMaine and settling in Portland’s Lincoln Park. “This seemed like the place to be to get our voices heard,” he said of the homeless people involved with the activist group.

Between 75 and 100 people sleep in Lincoln Park in Portland every night, according to some occupiers’ estimates, and about half of those people are homeless. OccupyMaine is working on a system to keep track of who is in camp, starting by numbering each tent.

OccupyMaine activists have been camped out at Portland’s Lincoln Park for a month and a half. What started as a handful of pitched tents has grown to a tent city complete with a library, community space, “Free Store,” medical tent and the “Om Dome,” a spiritual tent.

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