Monica Yant Kinney: Occupy underscores plight of the homeless

Jeffrey Watterson, 57, comes out to support Occupy Philadelphia at Dilworth Plaza. Watterson has been homeless for six months.
Jeffrey Watterson, 57, comes out to support Occupy Philadelphia at Dilworth Plaza. Watterson has been homeless for six months. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 20, 2011

Three times in 10 minutes Thursday, fellow Occupy Philadelphians ask Amy Ortell-Difilippo to join the march to the Market Street Bridge. Each time, the dreadlocked suburbanite on the group's Safety Committee politely declines.

She needs to stay at Dilworth Plaza to watch out for the homeless.

Mimi has returned from a forced psychiatric evaluation mumbling about a possibly fictional pregnancy. Genice Cook seeks socks.

Tommy D. seems clean and cogent and wants to come in from the cold. Link says he's on a waiting list for permanent housing, but won't risk his life at a city shelter.

The homeless "occupied this place before we showed up in our L.L. Bean tents," Ortell-Difilippo says, surveying the (mostly) African American stragglers after the (mostly) white protesters set off to block traffic and get arrested.

The Chester County artist feels protective of the homeless but acknowledges their presence has hastened Occupy's demise.

"This is hell on earth," she says, "the worst way humans can live."

With the story of the occupation changing sometimes by the hour, those who can leave or relocate may have done one or both by the time you read this. Those possessing warm beds will eventually crawl back under the covers.

Presuming Dilworth Plaza's $50 million makeover is imminent, what becomes of the troubled souls who have emerged from the shadows to form a commune in crisis?

For all the fear that anarchists may force a showdown with police, why aren't more people talking about what happens when bulldozers roll up on a site inhabited by so many with nowhere else to go?

Neighbors in need

The night before Occupy began, organizers counted 38 people living on or below Dilworth Plaza. City officials believe the number of homeless swelled to 50, but the Safety Committee estimates as many as 250.

Link shows me Alcoholics Anonymous badges - he's sober 11 months - and says vaguely that he "came for the cause" last month from a spot on South Broad Street.

Cook nabbed a free tent Wednesday after fleeing West Philadelphia. Her eyes are glazed and her body shakes as she searches for warm clothes in a wet suitcase.

"I'm freezing," Cook says. "What are they protesting?"

Well-meaning demonstrators admit being ill-equipped to tend to their new neighbors' dire needs.

"One week, we had 27 serious mental-health cases," Ortell-Difilippo says. "Two times, we've had to '302' people," referring to the act of involuntarily committing people like Mimi, who are believed to be at risk of harming themselves.

"She was spiraling so bad one night they took her away," says Ortell-Difilippo. She's surprised, and afraid, to see Mimi out of the hospital and back at the camp. Clearly, this young woman needs more than a blanket and a bologna sandwich.

Helpful, not hurtful

"Are you outreach?" asks Tommy D., hoping I came bearing help. He's 51 and out of work, but well-dressed and well-spoken. A month at Occupy is the longest he's ever spent on the streets.

"I'd like to own my own home again," he tells me. "I had property in Manayunk and Roxborough."

Tommy swears he'll accept any offer, but outreach teams report few takers for slots in shelters, less-restrictive havens, or even "winter beds" at churches.

"They say they have everything they need right where they are," relays Daviann Fearon, of Horizon House. "Or else they want to move into their own home immediately."

Deputy Mayor Donald Schwarz says the city has "limited opportunities" for permanent housing and must focus on Dilworth Plaza.

"We have encampments [of homeless people] around town that we have had to take down," he tells me. "We move people on."

That sounds ominous.

"I hope Occupy won't create a crisis. I hope we can be seen as being helpful, not hurtful," he adds with concern. "I don't know what will happen. This is a vulnerable group.


Call 215-232-1984 for homeless outreach assistance.

Contact columnist Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670, myant@phillynews.com, or @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.

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