As cities around the country have swept Occupy Wall Street camps from their plazas and parks in recent weeks, a number of mayors and city officials have argued that by providing shelter to the homeless, the camps are endangering the public and even the homeless themselves.
Yet in many of those cities, services for the homeless are severely underfunded. The cities have spent millions of dollars to police and evict the protesters, but they've been shutting down shelters and enacting laws to prohibit homeless from sleeping overnight in public.
In Oakland, Atlanta, Denver and Portland, Ore., there are at least two homeless people for every open bed in the shelter system, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In Salt Lake City, Utah, and Chapel Hill, N.C. -- two other cities that have evicted protesters from their encampments -- things are better but far from ideal. In Chapel Hill, according to the HUD study, there are 121 beds for 135 homeless people, and in Salt Lake City, 1,627 for 1,968.
Heather Maria Johnson, a civil rights attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, said most cities in the U.S. lack adequate affordable housing, emergency or transitional housing, or other social services for people who are either homeless or are in danger of losing their homes. "This was true before the current economic crisis and remains true today, particularly in areas that have cut social services due to budget concerns," Johnson said.
According to HUD, job losses and foreclosures helped push more than 170,000 families into homeless shelters in 2009, up nearly 30 percent from 2007. Of course, those are some of the same problems that have inspired people to protest.
After Atlanta's Mayor Kasim Reed forcibly evacuated Occupy Atlanta from a public park, protesters moved into a homeless shelter. As it turned out, the shelter had been tied up in court battles with the city for a few years, and the city had planned to close it. The shelter was scheduled to be shut down a few days after the protesters moved in, but that date has since been postponed indefinitely and protesters have taken up the shelter's cause.
Local stakeholders -- including city officials, the local business development group Central Atlanta Progress, Emory University and other business interests -- have been trying to boot the Task Force homeless shelter from its home as it sits on a valuable piece of real estate.
The fight between the shelter and its opponents goes back at least to 2008. In a recent court case, the task force that runs the shelter contended that Emory University had been trying to rid their area of the shelter for years. Emails released in court show that officials from Emory approached major private donors to the task force to make their case against the shelter, and that they talked with investors about foreclosing on it. And in recent weeks, the shelter has fought the city to prevent local authorities from turning off their water.
Some point out that the media has been paying more attention to the shelter's troubles since the protesters' arrival. Earlier this month, the county told a local TV station that tuberculosis had broken out at the shelter. Protesters told HuffPost that they thought these claims were bogus.
One protester, Tim Franzen, said he'd been living in the shelter for weeks and had yet to see signs of anyone getting sick. He described the claim as an attempt to smear the Occupation and the shelter.
So did Shab Bashiri, another protester. "The city wants to shut it down with absolutely no alternative," she said. According to Bashiri, the protesters had not only been "occupying" the shelter but had also been sleeping outdoors in areas where homeless people stay.
The shelter is the largest in the southeast, housing more than 1,000 people on some nights. "The city doesn't have the infrastructure to deal with 1,000 people," Franzen said. "So where would they go? We don't know."
Many protesters argue that the city should fund the shelter with the money they've spent on dealing with the protest. The mayor's office reports they spent nearly $500,000 in just two weeks dealing with Occupy Atlanta, most of it on overtime pay for police. Maurice Lattimore, who helps run the shelter, said $500,000 could fund the shelter easily for two years. He noted that the city hasn't put any money into the shelter's coffers since the court battle began three years ago.
The Atlanta mayor's office did not respond to a request for comment.
In Portland, Ore., Mayor Sam Adams said despite his support for the Occupy movement's principles, the Portland camp was getting dangerous. After the eviction, the mayor pointed to the presence of homeless people and people with mental illnesses. Nearby businesses had been pressuring him with claims that homeless residents were scaring away customers.
Judas James, a member of Occupy Portland who is himself homeless, said the protesters have tried to help homeless people who sought shelter with them by providing food, medical attention, tents and blankets.
"If there was money there for them, these people could be taken care of," James said. "It's hard because we want everyone to be safe, and we just don't have the resources to help them with it."
If the city were to take care of them using the money they've spent to pull down tents and clean up the park, it would amount to nearly $850,000, according to data from Mayor Adams' office.
Adams has acknowledged that the Occupy Portland movement has highlighted the city's homelessness problem, and said he supports a lot of the protesters' positions.
The city has invested $13 million towards relieving homelessness in the past five years and has devised a long-term plan to combat the problem. Yet, in an attempt to climb out of a budget hole of over $3 billion, Oregon has slashed its funding for social services by more than $73 million.
Amy Ruiz, a spokesperson for the mayor, wrote in an email that "providing social services and maintaining peace are not mutually exclusive. The City must, and does, do both." Ruiz pointed out that several nonprofit organizations, which receive money from state and local governments, had moved several dozen homeless people out of the Occupy camps into shelters, motels and other "lower-impact, and safer, camps."
Ruiz said more than 20 outreach workers representing at least seven organizations reached out to the homeless at the encampments before shutting them down.
Dennis Lundberg, an outreach worker, told Adams that the camp was doing more harm than good to Portland's street youth, who preferred the camp to the shelter system because they could reap the benefits of free meals without submitting to the sorts of rules imposed by the shelters.
In October, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock came out in support of new legislation that would ban homeless people from sleeping in public places overnight.
"We only have one downtown," Hancock said at the time. "We cannot afford to lose our city core. If people don't feel safe going downtown, that is a threat to the very vitality of our downtown and our city."
A couple weeks later, Hancock said he didn't want to allow protesters to set the precedent for sleeping in tents in the public parks. This was a prelude to Denver sending in riot police to evict the protesters.
Johnson, the civil rights attorney with the NLCHP, said the organization has noticed a nationwide increase in laws that criminalize homelessness, including laws that prohibit sleeping, sitting or storing belongings in public spaces, even when there is insufficient shelter space.
She argued these criminalization measures cost far more to municipalities than providing adequate shelter to people. Citing studies conducted in 13 cities and states, she said that it costs on average $87 per day to jail someone, compared to $28 per day to house them in a shelter. "With state and local budgets stretched to their limit, it's profoundly irrational to waste taxpayer money on these expensive criminalization policies," she said.
According to Revekka Balancier, the communications director of the homeless outreach program Denver Road Home, the city's homeless shelters are at capacity every night, and many have long waiting lists. And she noted that the city's homeless population is growing. A report from 2009 found that 10,604 people were living on the streets and in area shelters on the night the survey was conducted. By 2011, that number had increased by 6.5 percent, to 11,377.
A spokesperson for the mayor said that the city works with Denver Road Home and other organizations to "comprehensively address the needs of our homeless population."
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