Occupy Trinity and the Vanishing of Halloween

Occupy Wall Street was just blamed for forcing the cancellation of the annual Halloween party held on the premises of Trinity Church. Fox News has dutifully reported this fact to its loyal readers. Or has it?

It is true that Trinity Church’s Rector Cooper has decided to cancel the Halloween event, and Occupiers have camped outside his church since the beginning of June. Many of the protesters are indeed homeless, and a good number of occupiers have been arrested on a variety of disorderly conduct charges, including some open container incidents. However, while not actually lying in a technical sense, Fox News has still managed to distort the facts by telling only part of the story.

Let’s take a closer look at the issue of homelessness, and Fox News’ claim that many of the Trinity Occupiers are resisting help: Many of the protesters, and particularly those who have spent extensive time outside the church, are indeed without a home. Some by choice, others by circumstance. Many of the younger campers are runaways, fleeing abusive homes or being forced out by parents unwilling to accept their sexual orientation. In fact, An Epidemic of Homelessness, a national Gay & Lesbian task force, estimates that 42% of homeless youth nationwide, over half a million, are LGBT. Many of them can’t find a homeless shelter because there are only very few shelter beds available for young homeless and funding has been drastically cut as recently as 2011.

The New York City Council’s Youth Services Committee, estimates that 3,800 of the city’s homeless are teenagers, 40% of them LGBT, many of them forced to engage in ‘survival sex’ to provide for themselves. However, as the Epidemic writes in their report: “New York City and New York State combine funds to support fewer than 200 youth shelter beds. In 2011 Governor Cuomo and the New York State Legislature cut funds for homeless youth by 50%, and Mayor Bloomberg sought to cut funds for homeless youth by 60%. … Family conflict, including conflict over a youth’s sexual orientation or gender identity, is the primary cause for young people becoming homeless. In one study, 50 percent of gay male teens who came out to their parents experienced a negative reaction and 26 percent of them were told they must leave home.” The Coalition for the Homeless estimates that 20,000 children aged 0-20 currently live in New York City’s streets.

Trinity Church has asked BRC, a homeless outreach organization operating in lower Manhattan, to stop by the occupation on several occasion, and they have been seen talking to a number of the protesters, including Heather, a young mother of two, whom social services found living with her children in her car. Her car was impounded, her children were taken to foster care, and Heather was sent to live in the streets, told by social services she would only get her children back once she has found work and shelter. Heather now has a job, washes herself in Trinity’s guest bathrooms – until the church recently closed it for renovation- and dresses up nicely every morning, and goes to work. She attends all the classes and meetings social services requires her to complete in order to prove that she is indeed a mother fit enough to provide for her children. After several meetings with BRC in which she hoped she would finally be able to find shelter and reclaim her kids, she was told that the group was unable to help her, because – and get this – she wasn’t homeless long enough!

“Most people who do receive help from BRC have been living in the streets 2-5 years, which is their ideal range”, Fathema Shad’idi, a Red Cross medic who lives in the occupation to do homeless outreach and provide medical support, told me. “They get more money if they help someone who’s classified as long-term homeless, and in the end that’s all they care about.” A call to BRC requesting comment was not immediately returned.

A few of the homeless youth that was drawn to Occupy Trinity now have found shelter in the system, and some even have jobs now. “We try to get them help, and in a couple of cases we’ve managed, where it was just very obvious that the kids were struggling out here,” Fathema continued. “But for everyone we get help, there’s many more out here still needing support.” Another issue plaguing the homeless population are mental issues. “Many of them became homeless after being thrown out of mental institutions,” Shad’idi explains. “If they had insurance, they get thrown out when that ends. Others are being kept in Bellevue, drugged up, and then let go again.” A very detailed article on the subject can be found here.

“Also, many of the other homeless shelters are now filled with the working poor,” Fathema continued. “After the Mayor cut funding for rent subsidies checks 23,000 families are now becoming homeless and pushing into a shelter system that already has no room. Drop-in centers require proof that you’re homeless, or you can’t even go in there. They’ll ask you where you lived and tell you to go back there, even if you’ve fled an abusive situation.”

How exactly would one proof homelessness? “The soup kitchen I work at often sees these cases,”  Shad’idi told me. “We would write letters saying we’ve seen that person at this and that location, so and so often over this amount of time. That sometimes helps them to establish a track record of homelessness. But really, they’re putting these poor people on a hamster wheel, where they have to struggle just to maintain their place in the queue. Those who make it into shelter often have to leave by 6am and can’t come back until 3 or 4 in the afternoon. Where are they supposed to go? How are they supposed to be in good enough shape to find work so they can earn enough money to find a place to live? The homeless shelter system in New York City constitutes human warehousing at its worst.”

Another issue with the Fox News article is their insinuation that the camp outside Trinity Church is filthy. Indeed, Trinity Church had hired a company to clean its sidewalk, first once a week, then once and finally twice a day, until the workers refused to continue the job, since there was no need for this excessive cleaning. The Occupiers have had several brooms and mops confiscated by the NYPD, tools they used to clean up the sidewalks themselves. Trash usually piled up in a garbage can further down on the sidewalk, with cardboard next to it. Now workers of the church itself undertake the twice-daily hosing, often, when the boss is not looking, hosing around the Occupiers in order not to disturb them. On two recent trips down to Trinity Church I witnessed food and trash lying in the street on Broadway outside the church, but only after I watched officers of the NYPD throw it into oncoming traffic. The hosing encounters can indeed sometimes be tense, often because NYPD uses these incidents to confiscate personal belongings of the protesters, which then causes tension to rise, as Occupiers protest their treatment, these protests on several incidents bringing on arrests.

Melissa Freedman, a legal observer for the NYCLU, was arrested on one such occasion, as she stood on the sidewalk observing the hosing, shouting at the cops in disproval of their treatment of the Occupiers. “I was told to move, but since I stood on a subway grill, which belongs to the MTA, I didn’t. So I got nabbed.” Other arrests have occurred as protesters tried to hold on to their property as NYPD officers grabbed it, or tried to protect an item left in their care by a fellow Occupier. “If the cops wouldn’t constantly try to grab stuff during the hosings, things really wouldn’t be so bad,” Smiley, another member of the occupation, told me. Recently, NYPD have taken to driving Occupiers and their belongings away from the sidewalk completely during the hosing, with arrests now sometimes taking place across the street from the church.

“People also get weary,” Ed Mortimer comments. “[The NYPD] keep changing the rules on us. First it’s ok to have signs, then we have to hold them, then they snatch the signs or try to ban the cardboard we’re sleeping on. They really have it in for our food and our information table [a tarp on the floor with information flyers spread out on it]. Then they grab our stuff constantly. I’ve personally lost my glasses and two laptops and pretty much everything I own. No wonder people get mad sometimes.”

Not all the officers are comfortable however with the role they need to play in these interactions. On several nights a sergeant would stop by to say “My boss is on the way, so clean up here before he comes. Otherwise we have to throw your stuff out.” Also, some white shirt cops take a more lenient stance with protesters, preferring to reason with them rather than just handing out arrests. Around the corner from Trinity Church Occupiers even observed one NYPD Lieutenant screaming at his captain “we have to stop doing this shit to these people!” That Lieutenant has not been seen down there since, however, and other white shirt cops still do come down hard on the occupation.

As for the open container issue, several individuals living in the occupation have indeed been drunk outside the church on a number of occasions, sometimes leading to conflict within the community. Many Occupiers also suspect that one such individual is in fact a police informant. It should however be noted, that on one occasion, some of the underage Occupiers have been handed cans of beer at a catered event inside Trinity Church’s grounds, without having their IDs checked for age. “We try to keep this space safe for people to be in, both for us and anyone walking by,” Ed Mortimer, a street medic living in the occupation, told me. “Some of these kids really are troubled, and do need help. We do what limited things we can do for them, but obviously, having the church handing out beer doesn’t help.”

“We really try to work with the church workers not to interfere with their services and events,” Fathema added. “When there’s a wedding, we move to the side. When there’s a service, we don’t bother the people coming to attend it. Our beef is not with the couple looking to get married, or the people wanting to worship here. Our beef is with Rector Cooper and his board of directors who try to hide the fact that they’re running a real estate magnate with real-estate assets of more than $1 billion, and is in bed with the fat cats of Wall Street, behind the facade of being a church. We want people to see that this” and she points at the people sitting outside Trinity “is a direct consequence of that” as she points down Wall Street. “People have lost their homes due to the acts of greed of Wall Street bankers. People need to confront that and see the connection.”

Jack Boyle, another frequent visitor to the occupation at Trinity Church, and one of a group of occupiers found guilty for trespassing onto a plot of land owned by the church on December 17th, 2011, thinks the fact that Rector Cooper cancelled the Halloween event is less of a consequence of security concerns and more a matter of shame. “They have eight security cameras up there now, in addition to the ones set up by NYPD and the FBI. Nothing happens here that the government wouldn’t know about, particularly not in the early evening. Also, people here know they’re being watched, so they would be absolutely stupid to try and do something to a kid. Cooper is just ashamed to have people see what’s going on out here.”

The NYPD cameras aimed at the occupation outside Trinity Church are connected to the police’s facial recognition system. Several comments by NYPD white shirt cops to the protesters indicate that the police knows exactly who is who sitting outside this church, and what record they have. Several predators have tried to infiltrate the community, but have been driven away by the Occupiers or by the increasing number of surveillance cameras watching this strip of New York City sidewalk. “Predators are a constant problem for the homeless. Sexual abuse and assault are a huge problem and if you live in the street you have little protection from that,” Fathema told me. “Also, here they make friends with one of the Occupiers and then it’s hard for us to get them out, because we do have the principle of openness and inclusion. But we do try and keep the troublemakers away, because we want this to be a safe place to sleep for people, as we essentially run a drop-in center here. Sometimes the cops have helped us with that, other times they say there’s nothing they can do until these types actually do something. It’s been a huge problem in Zuccotti, and it’s a problem sometimes here. Many of them have taken off though once the cameras went up.”

The caveat of the Fox News article and this story is as readers we do need to remain mindful of which part of the story we are being told, as when one gets the opportunity to look at the complete picture, conclusions often seem less black and white.

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