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OCCUPIED – AN ISSUE TO BE IGNORED?

Alexandra Rose Nathan visited Occupy Wellington and came away with a new understanding of the issues

The last of the Occupy movement has gone, the tents have been eradicated, and a metal fence now blocks the entrance to the park between the council building and Wellington Stock Exchange.

When talking about the Occupy movement, most people laugh and make comments about the strange people that once occupied that space – how they smelled, and how the Occupy movement was just an excuse for people to protest against something.

When I first heard about the movement, my ears pricked up, because as a New Yorker, the Occupy movement is something that hits close to home.  Although the Occupy Wall St received its fair share of criticism, I quite liked the idea of middle-class and lower-class people standing up against corporate greed, unfair banking, and an unequal distribution of wealth. I was interested in seeing see how the Occupy Wellington movement matched up against the American Occupy movement.

I had every intention of criticising the Occupy Wellington movement further, seeing no sign of recession or real struggle in the city and after reading an article in The Dominion Post about how women were being harassed as they walked past the park, and how people generally felt threatened or unsafe.  I left the Occupy movement with greater compassion and a different understanding of the issues that people were drawing attention to.

“A country is responsible [for providing] its people with care, community, and health” says Benjamin Easton as he explains the problem he sees with Wellington City Council and the unfair distribution of wealth.  “New Zealand is a Christian country; no law can contradict the Christian principle”.

Benjamin Easton accuses New Zealand of not taking proper care of its homeless and poor with an inadequate welfare system, and says the country is violating the Christian principle of charity.  The points he makes seem to be directly against the New Zealand government and its failures, as opposed to the issues faced by the global economy – although he does say poverty and caring for people is a global concern.

Usually when people walk down the street and see a homeless person begging for money, they turn the other way, trying not to make eye contact. They do this so they don’t have to give any money or because ‘if I give money to this person, they will surely use it on drugs and not on food or shelter’.  Furthermore, many attitudes about the homeless usually go in the direction that these people are choosing to be homeless; that a homeless person could receive aid and there is no reason for them to be homeless.

The Occupy Wellington movement, in all of its untidy aesthetics, essentially threw into our faces the homeless issues of Wellington and a failure by individuals and the government to care for these people.  They were petitioning on a local level, but the issue of impoverished people not being able to afford subsidised housing, or being forced to be recluses of society because of their homelessness, is apparent across the globe, especially in the current economic climate. To all intents and purposes, the Occupy Wellington movement was a stand by the homeless that “we are here and look at how we’re living, pay attention to us and stop avoiding eye contact”.

After some time in Occupy Wellington and after speaking to Benjamin Easton, I realised that the goals of the Occupy Wellington were a lot more directed towards a very important and overlooked issue – the homelessness and poverty of societies.

It costs $10 a night for a homeless person to stay in a shelter.  Furthermore, they are not allowed to keep their things there. The shelter in Wellington is very small and they’re allowed to stay only from 8pm until 6am, when they are kicked out.  So, essentially, they are paying $1 for every hour, and that doesn’t even include a meal.  A meal, incidentally, is $2, which means that a homeless person, with no income except donations, is expected to come up with $12 a day for basic needs.

The facts about “welfare”, which is apparently so easy to get, are even more crude and surprising.  For instance, Stacey Gordon, a well-put-together woman who actively searches for jobs, has been on welfare her entire life, filing for her own benefits. She has to go through all the loops of the welfare system, and still receives only about $250 a week.  In order to receive welfare, you have to produce an address, a bank account, and proof that you are looking for a job. And resources and the care given are getting only harder and rarer.

Aside from the welfare that people receive – provided they fit the requirements – what is done for the people who are even more destitute and homeless?  There is no social network that actively tries to find these people so they can be offered care and help to them get off the streets. In fact, they’re not even given a free place to sleep at night and a hot meal.  The truth is, that in some way the system has failed them, regardless of their own contributions to their homeless state.  No one can even completely blame the system. But we can blame the system for turning a blind eye and seriously letting them down because they don’t fit into a box and are seen as being worthless to society.

It is unlikely the council will remedy this situation, or that anyone really cares about it as much as the people who are homeless.  Perhaps there are more constructive solutions, such as volunteer projects and ways for impoverished people to become involved with communities and earn their benefits if they’re unable to work.

In any case, it’s quite easy to turn a blind eye to someone who is impoverished and is seen as being a nuisance to the system and a recluse of society, but it’s a lot harder to ignore the issue when the facts are present and when there’s a group of people camped out in the centre of the city.

However easy it is to criticise someone for making wrong choices or for not doing more for themselves, it’s a lot harder to care about them and see them as deserving the same care, community, and health.

Now that the Occupy movement is gone and nothing has been done regarding the issue, it is clear  that the movement was a failure, and that perhaps the message to society was not clear enough.

What the Occupy Wellington movement stood for was different and more direct than the global Occupy movement, however valid their cause.  Still, when people are asked about what they know about Occupy Wellington, they still say it was “a bunch of douche-bags occupying a park in response to the Arab spring”, or “the people there didn’t even know what they were protesting against, they just wanted a reason to protest”.   Maybe the issue of homelessness was just something the council was happy to ignore, and maybe they decided that getting rid of the movement and paying security guards to watch over the space was a better use of money.

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