Last night, a desperate call was put into the Mayor’s Kenney’s office.
“There is something important happening at the camp. Something no one expected, and something the Mayor needs to understand. The unhoused activists, they are starting to blossom and thrive. There is something about what they are doing there that is helping them in ways no one predicted…”
The Occupy ICE PHL encampment began as a non-violent civil disobedience action intended to protest ICE. It’s first incarnation was set up outside the ICE administrative building in Philadelphia, and was staffed mostly by the more traditional activist groups. After the camp was forcibly dismantled by the police, it resettled outside City Hall where it worked to pressure Mayor Kenney to end the city’s participation in the PARS system.
It was at this new location that the demographics of the camp began to shift. The camp began to welcome anyone willing to respect the community and also worked to feed anyone who came to the camp. This began to attract a number of the unhoused from around the city. As the camp progressed through its next 3 weeks of sustained protest, many of the more traditional protesters began to be pulled away due to duties to work, families, school, etc. As a result, the unhoused community members who had been drawn to the camp began to step up into the leadership roles to maintain the movement. It was after this change that the miracle began to manifest.
Lives began to change while in the camp. A number of reports began to emerge of how many of the unhoused, who had been initially showing signs of mental illness, behavioral outbursts, and substance abuse, started to improve. People who started off as being disruptive started taking up roles to support the community, substance use reduced, and some people began to come out of their shells in beautiful ways.
“See that guy over there?” the activist manning the kitchen pointed, “When he first came to the camp he did not speak. He just sat there for a few days. And then one morning he picked up the guitar and sang us a song he composed on his own as gift for the camp.”
People are inherently social creatures. We all need to be part of something bigger. When we can’t be contributing members to the larger society, we feel a unique stress known as “Role Strain,” which can take a traumatic toll on a person’s psyche and self-esteem. The impact of the role strain can often result in depression, aggressive behaviors, substance abuse, and in severe cases, the stress can trigger psychosis. It has been well established that homelessness can actually cause or aggravate mental illness. Most of the explanations given for this focus on the stresses that occur when you face the threat of death every day due to lack of food, shelter, medical care, and the threat of violence. But what we are seeing at the camp is that there is another factor that most analysis has missed. The unhoused are also severely stressed due to the role strain of not being able to be a contributing part of society.
The miracle that occurred at the camp happened because the unhoused were not just given food and a safer place to sleep, but a chance to give back as well. By welcoming them into the leadership and giving them a chance to participate in a cause, they were no longer just charity recipients but full partners in a larger community. This is important because it reveals an important unseen social need that gets lost as people focus on only filling the more apparent physical needs.
At the time of the writing of this article the city has started to move in to dismantle the camp. The city claimed that they were going to send in housing and mental health workers to help the unhoused as part of this action. The reason for last night’s desperate call was an attempt to try to get Mayor Kenney to see that those services are not enough. Just taking care of the physical needs will not be enough, and looking at the individual component of the mental health still neglects what we have seen about this need for the larger social connection. Taking away that camp without a plan to provide some other way for the unhoused to contribute to a larger cause is stealing from these activists an important source of psychological sustenance that we are now learning to be just as important as any other physical need.