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Exclusive: Woonsocket City Council President talks about the encampment visit and the arrests made
"I'm not saying we're kicking 'em out tomorrow. I won't vote for that anyway. But there's got to be some other solution to put homeless people somewhere. "
There is a meeting of the Woonsocket City Council tonight, Monday, October 2, 2023, at 7 pm, Harris Hall – Third Floor, 169 Main Street, Woonsocket, RI 02895.
I spoke to Woonsocket City Council President Christopher Beauchamp about the encampment visit organized by Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, joined by Governor Daniel McKee, that turned into a raid resulting in the arrest of two men on drugs and weapons charges.
Here is our conversation, in its entirety, edited for clarity:
Steve Ahlquist: Can we start at the beginning? You went on tour...
Christopher Beauchamp: I was invited with two other council people to see the encampments in Woonsocket as they were. I wanted to go for my own edification to see how many people were there. You hear various numbers from nonprofits about how there are 20 to 50 people or 50 to a hundred people, so I wanted to get a handle on it. We went with the governor because we wanted to inform him of what our situation is, determine whether they're on state land, city land, or private land, and figure out what solutions can we do to help them and to see where we're at.
We didn't go in there rustling people, kicking 'em out of their tents or anything like that. There was nothing gung-ho about it. It was merely for my own edification and fact-finding. What are we doing? Who's here? I talked to Haley McKee, who's a homeless advocate, and she must've got wind from somebody there that there are some people upset about an invasion of privacy and whatever, but if they're on state land, city land, or private land, they shouldn't be there.
Steve Ahlquist: Where would they go? Because you just mentioned everywhere.
Christopher Beauchamp: The housing's the issue. I'm not saying we're kicking 'em out tomorrow. I won't vote for that anyway. But there's got to be some other solution to put homeless people somewhere. Whether a city or town somewhere adopts a location, like the Armory last year, that sounded like a good idea but fell apart. You know what I mean?
Steve Ahlquist: Yes.
Christopher Beauchamp: When you get 200 people, maybe, or 150 people that are homeless, and their in a place that's safe, supervised, secured, at least they're not in there doing their addictions and whatever. Because that's part of the problem.
Steve Ahlquist: It is part of the problem, although that's also why people don't go to these places, they are not ready for recovery.
Christopher Beauchamp: I talked to a couple of people at the encampment by myself, a couple of girls, and I said, "You guys want help? We can get you help." And one of 'em was kind of like, "Yeah, I want to get help." The other one was like, "You can't help me." And I'm like, "Well, I hear you."
I'm not saying it's overnight. I'm not saying it's going to happen tomorrow, or next week, or next year. Maybe they relapse and whatever happens, happens. I've been there, done that. I had a drinking problem for several years. I haven't had a drink in 33 years, and I told them that. I wasn't coming from some far-off place where I didn't know anything about addiction. I do.
And they were very nice. And I said, "Listen, if you need help..." And they said, "Well, maybe you could put a dumpster down here and we can pick up the garbage. Maybe that's a start."
"Maybe I can come with 30 garbage bags and give 'em to you and just clean up, put the garbage bags out and we could come to pick it up," I said, "Why would you guys want to live in this squalor?" It was awful.
Steve Ahlquist: I know.
Christopher Beauchamp: The next one we went to was, I got to say, much cleaner. They put everything in one spot, not where their tents were. But that's where we had the encounter with the guy who was doing something with drug paraphernalia. He had a scale and then he saw the police come in. He tried to hide everything and that's when they found the guns.
I get it. They got mental abuse, they got addiction abuse, but we got to have some kind of stop.
Steve Ahlquist: I agree we need to do something for people. It is just not good for them to be outside.
Christopher Beauchamp: No it’s not. We did it now because we know winter's coming. And you know, the City of Woonsocket, we voted for that Dignity Bus. It's not a solution, but it's a help. It's a help. We can hopefully put 20 people on there to get out of the cold at night. That's why we did it. But there's got to be a coordinated effort between cities and towns, state and federal governments to get money to find a location where we can put the vast number of these people so they can get their lives together.
Steve Ahlquist: Are you open to having something like that in Woonsocket, like a building that could be turned into a place for people who live?
Christopher Beauchamp: I'd have that discussion, but it would have to be a discussion with some of the nonprofits, like Community Care Alliance [CCA], to staff it and secure it. It can't just be a roof over their heads where they can do drugs and whatever they want.
That can't happen, because we've seen that at the hotels.
Steve Ahlquist: They get thrown out of the hotels if they're doing anything illicit. So what happens is people go into the hotels and then they get thrown out if they're doing illicit substances and they find themselves right back on the street again.
Christopher Beauchamp: That's why I think the hotel was a bandaid. It was almost an enabling thing where we put 'em in there, they're out of the cold for the night, which is a good thing, but there was no supervision. There were no rules. There were some rules, but I know what they did to the rooms in Smithfield, according to the police department.
Steve Ahlquist: I've heard those stories as well. I worry because what happens is if you have a person who's in active use and you say, "You can't come here if you're actively using." Do they just stay outside and freeze to death?
Christopher Beauchamp: And we don't want 'em over there not being able to get them the Narcan or whatever they need, right?
It's a balance. There's no doubt about it. But we got to start having hard discussions. The governor said this. He said, "I've got to find a host community and nobody wants that." But me, as one person on the council, I'd sit down and evaluate that for the City of Woonsocket, if we had an old mill and federal money kicked in where we could fix it and people could go there and it would be supervised and secure. I would entertain that notion, but I'm only one of seven.
Steve Ahlquist: I get that.
Christopher Beauchamp: I don't know if the mayor is in favor of that, but she and I don't agree 99 or 100% of the time. And this is probably one of those instances.
Steve Ahlquist: Was there anybody on this tour from one of the organizations like CCA or any other group that does outreach?
Christopher Beauchamp: We invited them. We emailed them three hours before we went. Nobody responded until 6:30 at night.
Steve Ahlquist: No one responded. So there was nobody...
Christopher Beauchamp: I guess Ben Lessing [President and CEO of CCA] sent an email to the mayor and I got an email today from him and it was kind of like, "You guys did this on your own." Well, we didn't do it on our own. We did it to see firsthand what's going on because I've been a little discouraged about some of CCA's comments, like when they say it's only 20 to 50 people. I saw a lot more people than that.
Steve Ahlquist: Oh, I know. There are more people than that. I visit encampments. It's part of my work. But when I visit encampments, I always go with people from one of the outreach organizations so that the people can understand what I'm doing and feel safe. I mean, if you walk in with 10 cops, people are going to feel unsafe.
Christopher Beauchamp: CCA was invited. They chose not to come. They chose to not even respond, which is more discouraging. We're going to talk about it, probably, tonight at the City Council meeting. I invited Haley McKee, actually. She's an advocate for the homeless. We spoke and I said, "Haley, I know where you're coming from. I don't think it was an invasion of privacy because we didn't wake 'em up. If they awoke because they saw us and they came out of their tents and they wanted to talk to us, they did. We didn't force 'em to, we didn't demand that they did. We didn't demand that they leave.”
Steve Ahlquist: I think that if I were in their position and I saw a whole bunch of people in suits and a bunch of cops coming at me in the middle of the day, I might feel intimidated.
Christopher Beauchamp: No doubt about it. No doubt about it. But we introduced ourselves. I told 'em who I was. I'm not there to hassle. I'm here to help really. And you know, with 10 people around me and another councilman, we asked, "Who's from Woonsocket?" There were two hands. We had a guy from Hyde Park and a guy from some other town Danvers or Dedham, coming to Woonsocket. I don't know what that's about.
Every city and town, I think, is dealing with this and they should deal with their own Woonsocket people or their own Providence people...
Steve Ahlquist: But, what about the rest? What happens to them? Do we just throw them out of the city?
Christopher Beauchamp: No, no. We say, "Do you have family in Smithfield or North Smithfield?" And a lot of 'em, obviously, have burned some bridges and maybe don't have that resource to go to. I get it. But at least it's a start. Maybe we talk to somebody from that town who may be able to help, a nonprofit or whatever. Because one girl I talked to, I'll be honest, she looked like she wanted to get help.
I know the problem was, as you said, maybe in that environment that we went down there, maybe she was a little intimidated, but she talked to me on the side and I said, "Here's my number. If you need help, call me." And you know what? I can help one person, I'm satisfied...
Steve Ahlquist: I get that. I had somebody tell me that the former building where CCA had their offices is empty. They suggested that the city might be able to convert it, with a little bit of ARPA funds, into a shelter. Is that a possibility?
Christopher Beauchamp: Anything's a possibility. I haven't heard that, but anything's a possibility. Hey listen, I'm at work.
Steve Ahlquist: I appreciate the call. I'll see you tonight at the council meeting. I'm going to try to be there at that meeting. Thank you so much for your time.
Christopher Beauchamp: Listen, I was respectful to you. I wish reciprocal, right?
Steve Ahlquist: I'm going to write exactly what you told me. No less, no more, I promise.
Christopher Beauchamp: Alright, thank you.
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[Without mentioning the presence of the Governor or the Mayor, channels 10 and 12 reported over the weekend that the two men arrested were 53-year-old Junior Martinez and 30-year-old Richard Bittner. They “were charged with possession with the intent to deliver a controlled substance, conspiracy, carrying without a license or permit to carry a concealed pistol or revolver (ghost gun), possession of prohibited large-capacity feeding devices, and possession of a firearm while delivering or manufacturing,” and “Martinez was also charged with possession of [a] firearm [by a] person convicted of a violent crime.”]
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