published in The Big Issue in the North Jan 2013
In the two months since Hurricane Sandy hit New York City and New Jersey, leaving an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 people homeless or displaced, Occupy activists have been at the for front of the ground relief effort.
Within 24 hours of the storm, Occupy volunteers had set up their first hub in Brooklyn and had over 40 volunteers. This has grown to active centres on Staten Island, The Rockaway’s and Coney Island, some of the city’s worst affected areas. They now have over 60,000 volunteers registered.
Occupy Sandy has been organising food deliveries, mould removal, building reconstruction, legal advice and cleaning since the storm struck on October 29th.
The original Occupy movement was a response to inequality made acute by the 2008 financial collapse. Damian Crisp, Occupy Volunteer Coordinator based in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, said: “This is a natural extension of the movement in Zuccotti Park [Occupy Wall Street]. Our idea of mutual aid is about communities sharing skills rather than just about pumping money in.”
Patricia Sener rents a flat in Brooklyn and was displaced by the storm. Her home was left without power for two weeks, without heat for six weeks and is still affected by mould damage. She said: “Displacement – it’s been extremely hard. I have been moving around a lot, staying at friends and travelling upstate to get away from it all. FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] did give me rental assistance, but it came kind of late in the game.”
Coalition for the Homeless, a US homelessness advocacy organisation, said in a statement: “Hurricane Sandy has devastated homeless New Yorkers, whose numbers were at record-high levels before the storm. And even with the City’s successful efforts to prevent immediate harm to homeless shelter residents, the long-term impacts will be incalculable.”
Compounding the problem of homelessness is New York’s large undocumented population. “Lots of people are staying put with damaged homes, afraid that if they leave landlords won’t let them come back. FEMA doesn’t offer assistance to those living illegally” said Crisp.
Matt Engel, volunteer with Occupy Sandy was working on the relief effort after the Earthquake in Haiti before he came to New York. “When the disaster struck I got a call from a friend who was ferrying in supplies. I came and brought a pump and generator. We started pumping out houses straight away” Engel is still helping with the clean-up and rebuilding of damaged homes.
Through the money donated to it during the storm relief campaign, Occupy is busy planning its next steps and looking at the wider problem of homelessness. “There are hardly any shelters.” Said Crisp. “The city could resolve that. We want to set up a directory that works a bit like couch surfing.”
Sener is waiting for help with her mould problem as well as putting up a friend who is still without heat, power and water and going through the bank foreclosure of his home. She said: “I can now honestly say I have a lot more empathy for the homeless – we are all just one or two events away from that reality.”