Urban Planner Says Occupy Philly “Glamorizes Homelessness” at City Hall
Occupy Philly is an unusual creature of a political party when it comes to reform. Members hold these daily meetings called “General Assemblies,” in which citizens of Tent Town over at City Hall hold open meetings for public discourse. Philly has its own version—called City Council meetings—however, the public turnout rate hasn’t swelled nearly as high as Occupy’s since the city’s budget meetings last spring. Sigh, democracy.
To gain a better understanding of what Occupy needs to succeed, we chatted with Jillian Penrod-Krause, who has a masters in public health and urban planning and works at a Philadelphia area university. And not that it matters, but she also used to live on food stamps for a while and is currently more than $200,000 in student loan debt.
Philly Weekly: Jillian, what were your initial thoughts upon your recent trip to Occupy Philly down at City Hall?
Jillian Penrod-Krause: I thought it was a really interesting, expressive demonstration. I had a bit of a background, following with the news, and I think Occupy Philly is one of the sites that has not had violence or notable interactions or with the police. That affected how I saw it, to know that the police tolerated it. I think any social [action] that the city tolerates made me feel more comfortable viewing it, more comfortable walking by it as a citizen of Philadelphia. I wasn’t getting caught up in feeling unsafe.
PW: Occupy often chants “We are the 99 percent!” From what you observed, does Occupy Philly represent the 99 percent?
JPK: They represent the people who have the time, schedule and energy to come out. They share the same characteristics, so I don’t think they represent the 99 percent. They are really reflecting more of a lower-middle-class to middle-to-upper middle-class. These are people who, at one time, they might have been prosperous. I’m not sure they really represent the poor. They represent everybody but the super rich.
PW: Dozens of tents are sprinkled around City Hall, which you tweeted was “glamorizing homelessness.” What did you mean?
JPK: It’s not following the message they’re trying to send. When they’re trying to make a statement, why are they not reducing their dependence of corporations to match their message? They have projectors for movies, charging stations for cell phones, all these things—corporations, they make them. They should be reducing their dependence on corporations if they wanna send that message. It costs Philly [almost $33,000] a day to maintain police. That’s pennies compared to the bailout. But if all these people are volunteering or reducing crime or investing in social programs, they could re-route funds to something else that could benefit the city.
PW: But it’s a movement. Why would they give their stuff away?
JPK: They’re asking for jams, individually wrapped foods, honey. All these weird foods when they could be providing food where it’s really in need. These are things that could be marked for social welfare programs … I think it’s one thing to go there doing during day, protest and do their thing. But for people who have a home, go home, eat there. You’re literally asking to take food out of others people’s mouths for your own, when they have none. There are so many great nonprofits in the city.
PW: The movement centers on Occupiers’ relentless efforts to stay put and camp out until change happens. Why do you have such a beef with Occupiers sleeping in tents?
JPK: Philadelphia has alcoves and stoops and alleyways that are utilized by the city’s very large homeless population. I don’t see true homeless people with tents. Making a big statement and saying like, ‘I’m going without the necessities. I’m going on a hunger strike. I’m doing this to make a statement,’ that really doesn’t involve tents or cell phones. Reduce your dependence. It’s very important for voices to be heard. Absolutely. Ironically, they should take lessons from corporate branding and marketing and figure how to best send [their] message.
PW: You mentioned that Occupy should address “real class issues,” although they call out corporate greed. What else could they do?
JPK: Looking at it on a more municipal level, these are issues with care to the city, like not having funding to educate children, not having resources fight crime. If every single person at Occupy Philly came to every city hall meeting, I think these things would get done. I don’t think this is the regular participation rate of City Hall meetings, and it should be. Why isn’t there any consistency? Why are people some just jumping on the bandwagon? There are plenty opportunities to educate policy makers or vote and make a change, but not everyone is taking them.
PW: Where do you see the movement going?
JPK: It depends on the momentum of the message. I know that’s been a theme in the media, but if they don’t strengthen their message, I don’t think this movement is going to engage and spur the movement it’s meant to.
PW: Its biggest weakness?
JPK: Trying to do too many things. Its lack of a true solid direction and solid message—if everyone is asking what a message is, you need to get your message out there. It needs to be socially sold. Politically sold. It needs to be packaged … If people are coming over to dinner, make the dinner table nice! Caring about social good is not just buying a reusable tote bag at Whole Foods. Stop going to Whole Foods!
PW: Biggest strength?
JPK: This kind of demonstration creates a platform for future demonstrations and I think it’s great City Hall is going back to being a real City Hall, where people use the space.
PW: What’s something people generally don’t know?
JPK: The movement is trying to fight for the survival of a class that corporations and a government created. The middle class formed in the ’50s and ’40s because the government gave everybody money to live. So this class they’re fighting to maintain is a class the government created.
[Editor's note: This was part of a longer conversation.]