Meanwhile, 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.
According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, in Oakland, Atlanta, Denver and Portland, Ore., there are at least two homeless people for every open bed in the shelter system.
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.
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,” said Maria Johnson, a civil rights attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
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. It turned out that 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 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.”
Atlanta has been flagged as one of the worst cities nationally in which to be homeless and has the widest income gap between rich and poor.
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.
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.
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.
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. The homeless population in the United States increased by approximately 20,000 people – or 3 percent – from 2008 to 2009.
While most people experiencing homelessness are sheltered, nearly 4 in 10 were living on the street, in a car, or in another place not intended for human habitation, according to the EndHomelessness.org.
The Occupy Wall Street movement that started in New York City on September 17 is challenging the increasing wealth inequality in America and criticizes the greed of the nation’s wealthiest people. [via Huffington Post and Press TV]