Volunteers survey what’s left of an encampment for homeless individuals that was cleared Monday morning, Aug. 7, 2023 in Providence. (Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)
PROVIDENCE — About thirty yards separated a construction shredder from a group of people scrambling to gather up the belongings of a couple who had been living in a tent just off Route 146 Monday morning.
Volunteers helped the couple — a man and a pregnant woman — cart their few belongings across a narrow plank spanning the West River. They were among the last dozen or so people to vacate a homeless encampment at 450 Charles St., just off the busy highway, after Providence Police delivered an eviction order to the encampment’s residents last Friday.
The eviction at the site, spread over private and state property, was prompted by a demand from 329 Development LLC of Seekonk, Massachusetts, which owns a 40,000-square foot parcel there. In a letter to the city last week, Joseph P. Carnavale, an attorney representing 329 Development, sought the removal of “squatters” from the property.
329 Development did not respond to a request for comment from Rhode Island Current.
“We’re probably gonna be back here in another month,” Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness spokesperson Juan Espinoza said during a press conference at the site. “The tents that you see here are these people’s homes.”
The Charles Street eviction followed an eviction at a Cranston site on July 14. Another encampment in Woonsocket was cleared last January while a high-profile encampment was removed from the State House grounds last December.
“Some of these folks here were in Cranston a month ago,” Espinoza said. “What we need now are long-term solutions.”
“We are waiting for social services and law enforcement to ensure all individuals and their belongings have been removed from the encampment,” Vanessa Gonzalez, spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (DOT), wrote in an email to Rhode Island Current. “Once we have been ensured RIDOT will send maintenance crews to clean the area, this is our standard operating procedure.”
Shortly before 11 a.m., a contracted DOT maintenance crew worked to clear the west bank of the West River. It paused shortly after. Most of those camped at the site had left by noon.
A spokesman for the Rhode Island Department of Housing said it would continue to partner with municipalities, developers, and service providers to expand housing opportunities and that outreach workers would prove critical in resettling those displaced Monday.
“Our team is grateful to the service providers and outreach workers who have connected with and offered help to people at the encampment,” he said in an email Friday. “To support the work of these professionals and to serve unsheltered Rhode Islanders going forward, we need to build more emergency shelter and more permanent housing.
Two Providence police officers enter a homeless encampment off Charles Street in Providence accompanied by Juan Espinoza, R, of the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness. About a dozen people were left camping at the site as the deadline to vacate hit on Monday, Aug. 7, 2023 in Providence. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)
More than 40 people had set up beds, tents, campfires, and makeshift kitchens at the Charles Street encampment until Friday, according to a statement from the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project (RIHAP).
All encampment clearances do is make it more difficult for outreach workers to work with clients, RIHAP Director Eric Hirsch said.
“I don’t think the city really cares about people experiencing homelessness,” said Hirsch, a professor of sociology at Providence College. He claimed police had been harassing those at the site by checking on the people living there multiple times to register their names and birthdates. Hirsch said Rhode Island State Police visited the encampment at midnight on Aug. 4.
“This is a way of trying to get people to leave,” Hirsch said. “It’s inhumane and morally wrong to treat people like this.”
A spokesman for Mayor Brett Smiley said the city is working with the Department of Housing to on finding sites to establish pallet housing — rapidly deployed units arranged in groups that can house two people apiece.
“We are continuing to work with our community partners and the state to ensure the individuals at this site have access to housing opportunities and continue to receive medical care, medical supplies, harm reduction services and behavioral health supports through city-funded contracts and city services teams like EMS,” said Joshua Estrella, Smiley’s spokesman.
Representatives for the Providence Police Department and Rhode Island State Police did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Where do they go?
Hirsch said his organization made the following three requests to address homelessness in Providence during a meeting with Smiley in May:
- Basic sanitation services in the forms of dumpsters and port-a-potties.
- A promise that police would not harm, harass, arrest, or ticket those in encampments due to a lack of housing options.
- 100 emergency shelter beds in city-owned properties, or properties it could acquire
“[Mayor Smiley] has done nothing since then,” Hirsch said.
Jenn Barrera, the chief strategy officer for the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness, said she was worried that outreach workers would lose contact with people as they dispersed to find new shelter. Before the eviction was ordered, staff knew where to check on people and make sure they had access to Narcan opioid overdose treatment and emergency services if they needed it, she added.
“There’s a degree of lethality,” Barrera said, citing risks such as insect-borne illnesses, substance use disorder, mental health crises, and wound care needs.
Barrera also was concerned that breaking up the encampment increased the chances that individuals would end up isolated without anyone they know to summon help if they need it.
“They look out for each other,” she said.
Berrera added that those in the encampment were now in the state’s Coordinated Entry System, which determines who goes to shelters and when based on preferences, need, and availability.
The coalition’s July Homeless Management Information System report recorded 440 Rhode Islanders were without shelter in the last two weeks of June, and 614 were awaiting shelter at the end of July.
Open Doors Rhode Island confirmed to Rhode Island Current that it moved seven people from the site into the Motel 6 on Jefferson Boulevard in Warwick.
Officials make their presence known
Providence City Councilors Jason Roias and Shelley Peterson, both vocal housing advocates, condemned the evictions.
“Over several months, I’ve visited the encampment, brought food, and engaged with a diverse range of individuals,” Roias said in a statement. “I observed a young man, merely 30 years of age, succumbing to an overdose right before my eyes.”
Two Democratic candidates running for Rhode Island’s open 1st Congressional District seat also visited the site Monday.
“It’s very depressing to see this,” said Providence Sen. Ana Quezada. “We need to find long-term solutions so that we don’t just keep kicking things down the road.”
Candidate Stephanie Beauté said she had visited the site on multiple occasions in recent months to bring food and hear the encampments residents’ concerns. She said there is a need for policies that make it easier to find jobs paying a living wage, address substance use issues, and lower housing costs.
“One of the issues with homelessness in Rhode Island is our politicians have consistently failed the people,” Beauté said.
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