NEW YORK CITY -- "I figured if I'm going to be homeless, I might as well be homeless for a good reason," said Matt Kitchens. The Alabama native is one of the hundreds of restless youth Occupying Wall Street, determined that their voices be heard. After finishing trade school, Kitchens, 20, worked as a welder in Mobile's shipyards. He hit the road after that work ran out, and ended up working in a coffee shop in upstate New York. That job ended six months ago. Now he's on Wall Street.
Matt from Philadelphia had a similar story. He worked at a succession of short-lived jobs installing floors, then at a produce market.
Two students from Ithaca, NY, Marie Spoelstra and Sarah Richards are camped out "to protest corporate greed." says Spoelstra, 20, a sociology major. Her buddy Richards, who works serving up toasted sandwiches at a Subway outlet adds, "We work hard and have nothing to show for it. We're sick of having everything taken from us."
Esmeralda, Youth Council President of the Mid Manhattan NAACP, and two friends are camping out together. Esmeralda, 17, says she's had "lots of internships, but never a real job." Her high school is just across the street from Zuccotti Park and she's been joining her friends Chilligan, 19, and Nicole, 20 at the park every day after class.
Nicole Angelo is a 23-year-old college graduate. She hasn't been able to find a job since the office that she worked at all the way through college closed in 2009. "It's happening to everybody," says Angelo. "The system needs a change. Where's our voice in government?" She takes a train to her family's home in Westchester County every few days to take a shower and check email, but is committed to the new community she's a part of. "I get even better taken care of here than at home," she says with a nod toward the "kitchen" area. "There's always a hot meal."
A whole section of the park is devoted to collecting, preparing and distributing food. As this reporter stood by, a man pushing a toddler in a stroller dropped off a bag of eight steaming hot egg and cheese sandwiches he had just purchased at a nearby deli. Other passersby stuffed $10 and $20 bills in a collection jar.
Dave Anthony takes charge of the bag, carefully arranging the sandwiches on a table for distribution. Anthony, who works afternoons as a chef, says, "I make sure the food is fresh." There are cartons of coffee, and a veritable buffet of fresh fruit, bagels, and occasional pizzas. Afternoons Anthony goes to work at his restaurant job. Otherwise, he says, "I'm here day and night." Anthony is still paying the student loans he took out to go to chef school. "I pay on it every month but the number never goes down! I feel that Wall Street should help us," he continues. "A lot of people here are in debt, especially tuition loans. Some are homeless. We want a future for ourselves and our children." Anthony said he was drawn to come down to Wall Street "when I saw people protesting for our rights. I've been waiting a long time for something to happen."
Eric Tucker was resting on an air mattress. He looked amazingly well pressed for a man who's been sleeping out in the rain for six days. Tucker, 22, came with a group from Jersey he says and he especially appreciates the communal spirit of the encampment. He has done work installing solar panels, and a stint at Target, but hasn't had a job in a couple of years. Like the others he didn't seem the least daunted by the hardships of living outside for days and days when it seems to rain at least once every 24 hours. Sometimes when the downpour starts the protestors gather under a construction canopy across the street. Others hang out at a McDonalds that has been friendly. Still others just curl up in their multi colored tarps. Tucker was getting ready to set off for the apartment of a stranger in the neighborhood. He had put an ad on Craigslist appealing to someone in the neighborhood to let him use their shower. Given the positive response from passersby, Tucker wasn't a bit surprised to get a response from a friendly New Yorker.
Photo: Matt Kitchens, 20, of Mobile, Alabama. Roberta Wood/PW