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For Occupy, housing is an issue

Amid accusations of drug use and sporadic theft, refugees of Occupy Wall Street movement have been sleeping on church pews for weeks, consuming at least $20,000 of the donations that Occupy Wall Street still has in its coffers.

The nomadic group has been living in the rotating series of churches since the city shut down its camp in November.

Their existence is being hotly debated at Occupy meetings: Are these people truly "Occupiers" who deserve free food and a roof over their heads? "We don't do this out of charity," said Ravi Ahmad, 34, who works for Columbia University and volunteers with Occupy in her spare time. "We do this so that whoever wants to work in the movement can work in the movement. This is a meritocracy."

But money is draining rapidly from Occupy's various bank accounts, which amount to about $344,000. Including church maintenance costs and meals, living expenses are more than $2,000 per week.

The movement, which denounces corporate excess and economic inequality, has been fighting to stay afloat in the city where it began. Media attention and donations have dropped off.

On Monday, the metal barricades surrounding Zuccotti Park were removed for the first time since the November raid. But protesters still can't set up tents to camp overnight.

Their current home is the West-Park Presbyterian Church, a 100-year-old house of worship that badly needs renovation. Occupy organizers see the cracks in the ceiling as an opportunity to repay the favor by helping to fix the place up.

About 70 Occupiers are staying there and about 30 or so at Park Slope United Methodist Church in Brooklyn.

Nobody is allowed to stay in the church during the day. At night, the place is patrolled by an Occupy security team led by Marine Corps Sgt. Halo Showzah, 27, an Iraq War veteran from the Bronx.

The church was quiet and cozy Wednesday night as about two dozen people staked out their respective corners of the room. Some prefer the balcony; others like to curl up by the door. Someone fiddled around on the piano and sang a few songs as a cat watched from a pew. Showzah wandered around and chatted with everyone, making jokes and doling out advice to the singer.

The security threat is very real here. At least 30 percent of the crowd is a mix of chronically homeless, drug-addicted people, some of whom suffer from "psychological issues," as several protesters put it. Among other rules, the pastor has demanded that the Occupiers station at least one mental health expert "within easy reach" of the church every night.

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