The first day of Occupy Philadelphia I met Sarah Craven, a former Army medic vowing to care for protesters the way she did for fellow soldiers. She was passionate and levelheaded, but ticked off about the lousy state of affairs she came home to after risking her life for years in Iraq.

Monday, the 40th day of the outdoor encampment opposing corporate greed and government complicity, I watched a woman eat mashed potatoes as she held a catheter bag. Later, I got propositioned by a 67-year-old man lounging on a baby blanket with his zipper undone.

One protester complained of 99 percenters stealing from other 99 percenters. Women who had bragged about Occupy's ability to police itself now gripe that cops won't evict sexual predators. A camper showed me a constellation of mysterious bite marks he'd like to have examined by a doctor before he's arrested for blocking the Market Street bridge Thursday.

In the absence of charismatic leaders outlining clear demands, I settle for Michael Blas, a 27-year-old who says he gave up his job, apartment, and life savings for the cause that now consumes him.

"I'm not leaving," Blas declares, "until every issue of every human on this planet is resolved."

But "undoing the wrongs of our ancestors" could take seven or eight years in his estimate. Blas doesn't know if he'll stay that long, but he won't move on just because Occupy's permit expires.

Democracy and dysfunction

This, sadly, is what Occupy Philadelphia has become: a splintered slum of the homeless bunking next to radicals seeking confrontation for confrontation's sake.

The tent city reeks of urine, wet trash, and the unwashed masses drawn by three free squares and sleeping bags. The walls beneath Dilworth Plaza are marked by anarchist graffiti and feces. Tuesday, police arrested one homeless Occupier accused of assaulting another.

Police Civil Affairs Capt. Bill Fisher calls the mix of Quakers and gun-toters "a vegetable soup." He's been at the camp daily and still doesn't know what the Occupiers want, beyond vegan meals.

The sight of 312 tents ringing City Hall remains a powerful image of the beating people have taken by foes in Washington and on Wall Street. The protesters have succeeded in forcing an uncomfortable national discussion on class warfare.

But when a leaderless movement devolves from democracy to dysfunction, it's time to pack up.

The tide is turning

I'm not a politician or CEO ordering Occupiers to vacate. I'm asking as a fellow 99 percenter earning less this year than last - and nothing on 10 furlough days - at a post-bankrupt newspaper fighting for its life. The root message of the occupation - the frustration of hard times - resonates with journalists.

But I'm not alone in seeking détente. Media support is fading as a furious fringe seeks an unnecessary showdown with police.

Mayor Nutter, perhaps the most understanding hostage victim in America - powering the protest with city electricity! - changed his tone in the wake of an alleged rape at the camp. In a show of respect, Nutter had marched with his top advisers to meet Occupiers on their terms and turf. But still the protesters refuse to move across the street to make way for a renovation that will employ 1,000 struggling construction workers for two years.

Critics carping over the $50 million budget make Managing Director Rich Negrin want to scream.

"The overwhelming majority of that money," he reminds, "is going back to the 99 percent" in the form of wages and benefits.

God help us if the building trades sic members on the occupation.

Donna Cooper, a poverty expert and policy adviser to former Gov. Ed Rendell, got her start as an activist organizing the multiyear Seneca Women's Peace Encampment against nuclear arms. The veteran of both sides of protest supports the Occupiers' message but questions their tactics.

Where's the national coordination among all occupations? What's the point of provoking police? Why is no one talking interim goals or compromises - such as daytime rallies - that let protesters save face and resume sleeping indoors?

"It would be wise to get out before it starts snowing," says Cooper, now with the progressive Center for American Progress. "Otherwise the group is likely to get so small that supporters lose faith and the movement loses its relevance."

And with the holiday season sure to be offset by wrenching tales of despair, there may be no more relevant conversation than the one the Occupiers already started.

Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670, myant@phillynews.com, or @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq