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Mayor Smiley's policy of raiding homeless encampments protested at City Hall
“You want us to believe in you and have trust in a government that consistently fails us."
The Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project (RIHAP)1 and their supporters were at Providence City Hall on Wednesday to protest the continuing police raids of homeless encampments in the city. Between 75 and 90 people participated.
“Mayor Brett Smiley and his administration do little to nothing to provide acceptable alternatives to sleeping outside in tents.”
“What's going on is we still have hundreds of people living outside,” said Professor Eric Hirsch, who heads up RIHAP. “We've been demanding a response to this for over two years. We've gotten almost nothing as a result.”
“We asked the Mayor, demanded really, to find some city-owned buildings and put some shelter beds in those buildings. He said we don't have any buildings where you can do that.
“We said to find some city land and set up rapidly deployable pallet shelters. He said he would look into that months and months ago. Where are they? Where are those pallet shelters? Did he set them up? No, he didn't.
“So we said, if you're not offering reasonable alternatives to tents, stop the police raids until people actually have a place to go.
“The lies need to stop. And the lies are that people are being provided with shelter or housing and services. Lies, like they're doing these raids to provide for people's greater safety. Is that what happened to Michael Neugent? He's wandering around all night.
“He was safer in the tent. Why didn't they just come and pick up the trash and leave him in the tent? It's not about safety at all. It's about the nod in my backyard complaints.
“We understand some of those are legitimate complaints, but guess what? Those people who are complaining also say all the time, "What are these people doing out here on the street? Why don't they have homes? Why don't they have at least a roof over their heads?" That's what the mayor should be listening to and not just trying to get votes by conducting these police raids. I can't think of any other reason why he would be doing them.
“So let's stop the raids. Let's get these pallet shelters set up now before it gets really cold. We want to see those shelters set up, now. He said he was going to do it and he's not doing it. So we will see you next time. We will be back. Stay in touch with us and make sure you're here for the next protest, unless the Mayor actually does what he said he was going to do, which is provide new shelter beds for the hundreds of people who are outside.”
In a statement, RIHAP wrote:
“The Providence Police Department continues to raid homeless encampments without providing acceptable alternative housing or shelter to the residents. Last Friday, September 29, police officers arrested Michael Neugent at the Orms Street Route 95 overpass for trespassing on state property. Michael was the first protester at the State House Plaza encampment. He has been evicted multiple times by the state and by cities and towns when in other encampments. This time he was forced to stay at the ACI [Adult Correctional Institutions] for two days and all of his belongings, including a backpack with all of his vital documents, were put in the trash. This arrest and other similar arrests are blatant violations of the Homeless Bill of Rights, a state law that guarantees that people experiencing homelessness have the right to equal treatment by police, the right to privacy, and the right to have respect for their private property.
“There have been additional arrests at a site where many of those who had been at the raided Charles Street Encampment have relocated. And there have been arrests after Governor McKee had a “tour” of encampments in Woonsocket. Is this the answer that Providence Mayor Brett Smiley and Rhode Island Governor Daniel McKee have for people living outside: arrests and imprisonment? Permanent housing or humane shelter would be far less expensive than incarcerating the estimated nearly 400 people who are living outside in our state right now.
“The argument from the city and state is that shelter or housing is always offered to those in encampments before they are raided. But it is never the case that more than a few people find shelter prior to the raid, and almost no one gets housing before they and their possessions are removed by police. The gap in shelter beds as winter approaches is in the hundreds. There are not enough shelter beds to offer as encampments are raided. People are also supposedly offered storage for their possessions, but as Michael Neugent found out, most never see those possessions again if they do not move them themselves prior to the raid.
“The mayor has previously done little to nothing to provide additional shelter beds for the hundreds of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in his city. He has failed to erect or even effectively plan for rapidly deployable shelters and is instead sending police to raid encampments. He has focused on “Quality of Life” complaints by those living near the encampments and not on the more life-threatening needs of those without shelter as winter approaches. He is proud of the number of ATVs he has destroyed but what about the quality of life for those living unsheltered in Providence?”
Mayor Smiley was not at City Hall during the protest. In a statement that in no way addressed the concerns of those at the protest, the mayor wrote:
“Providence has been disproportionately affected by this statewide housing crisis and we've responded by providing as many resources as possible to the many people who come to the city looking for help. We have invested $3.4 million in shelter beds over the last year, provided an additional $263,000 to extend the use of current shelter beds and used our city budget to increase funding for local service provider Amos House. Our goal is always to keep unhoused people safe and healthy while finding them permanent housing, which is why at every opportunity we have worked with our local and State partners to facilitate their placement in local shelters and assistance programs.”
Some of the most poignant testimony came from Danny Griffiths, a man who has experienced homelessness and drug addiction often in his life and who was most recently evicted from the Charles Street Encampment.
“They said that they would leave us alone until Monday. I lived at that in Charles Street Encampment. I was there every day. I've been outside and homeless for three years. I lived in the Charles Street Encampment. I was there every day. I lived outside for two winters and three summers. This was just one of multiple times that I've been homeless in my lifetime. I've been on my own since I was 12. I've been rabid with drug addiction and violence and imprisonment my entire life - since I was a child.
“The police and the law tell you that we're constitutionally incapable of change. Well, I beg to differ because right now I'm constitutionally capable of change along with multiple other people that I live with who are also homeless and grappling with drug addiction and violence. We're all doing well. We're sober. We're clean. We're all becoming productive members of society and we're all looking into getting housing.
“There were all these people that were told that we wouldn't amount to anything, that we were a scourge on the back of society or a thorn in their side.
“This is coming from someone who's outside, who's been outside his whole life, who's been institutionalized his whole life, who's been in and out of prison his whole life. Okay? I get it. I get it. I understand what the police are talking about. I understand about people robbing. I understand about people stealing from Lowe's, I understand about people pissing and shitting outside where the porta potties were.
“They say there's certain things you can't avoid. You can't avoid people using outside. You can't avoid people using unsafely. You can't avoid people throwing their dirty needles out. You can't avoid people ODing. But these are all things that can be avoided with the proper amount of policing and the proper people to take care of and follow up after with these individuals. Okay?
“We're not going to avoid the problem of drug addiction. We're not going to avoid the problem of homelessness. We need to deal with the problem. We need to talk about the problem and it's not a problem. It's a right. We have a right to live.
“I was an engineer. I was in the United States Army. I fought for my country. I made a series of bad decisions, which allowed me to be homeless, which allowed me to be ripe for drug addiction, which allowed me to be in the place I was at. I'm not trying to reject responsibility for my actions and neither are all the people I know that are my friends, that are in those encampments right now, that are dying, that are ending up in prison, being chased around by the cops for shit they didn't do. People shouldn't have to be in fear when their life is already bad enough. That's not right.
“I'm not just a person holding a sign. I was a fucking homeless person who lived in the encampments. I shot dope. I almost died. I fucking almost died. I OD'd 29 times over the two and a half years I've been there. I know what it feels like. I know what it's like to feel lonely and depressed and to want to kill yourself every day. I have three beautiful children that I neglected for a long period of time.
“I'm not trying to run from the truth or the facts. The fact is that people have to be held accountable for their actions, just like when I committed crimes and went to jail. What [elected officials] are doing is a crime and they shouldn't have to go to jail for it, but they certainly should be held accountable. When does the lying stop?
“You want me to be a become member of society? You don't want me to lie? You've got people at the highest levels of government lying every day. You've got people at the highest levels of government not being responsible not only for themselves, but for the people they have sworn to protect.
“[At the Charles Street Encampment] the officers said to us, "We will not bother you." Okay? For the first time in my life, I believed these officers. I said, "You know what? You seem a bunch like of standup guys. I'm going to believe them."
“Fucking dudes did not leave us alone at all. They came back hour-after-hour, harassing, chasing us around, and raiding the camp before Monday.
“You want us to believe in you and have trust in a government that consistently fails us.
“I am not trying to say that we shouldn't be held accountable. If you get caught stealing, you go to jail. I'm not saying that. I'm saying that they should be accountable too. Telling me I need to be accountable, when you're not being accountable, what kind of leadership is that? That's not leadership. You're sinking it. You're sinking the fucking shit that you've been sworn to protect. You're not doing it. You're not making your officers accountable for the laws that they're breaking.”
Danny held up his backpack, which holds most of his possessions.
"You need a warrant for that. You need a warrant for it but I might be detained for a crime. No, you can't have an ID. Well, if you don't give your ID we'll put you in prison on a trumped up charge of some shit you didn't do. The officers are telling me I need to follow the law and they're breaking the law. And when you get pissed off if we say some slick shit. Well, come on. You've got to understand that this is a two-way street.
“I get it. It is a problem. Homeless people do drugs and why the fuck do you think they do drugs? Probably because they're homeless and they don't have a pot to piss in or a leg to stand on.
“If it wasn't for certain people in my general vicinity, I wouldn't have what I have right now. The woman who saved my life is part of a House of Hope operation called First Step. It's one of the only [programs like it] in the state right now, and they can't get funding. They cannot get funding from the state for anything. You are talking about outreach workers that are taking homeless people off the street that otherwise wouldn't have anything to look forward to, and putting them in a shelter.
“I'm earning it by being a normal human. By being clean and responsible and operating my daily life like a normal human being. This isn't something that's just given to me. I have to earn this every day and I earn it by coming down to these events and I earn it by talking to the other drug-addicted homeless people who are also my best friends and some of the only people that have ever shown me love, true love, in my entire life.
“We're not all bad. We come from good families. We come from good jobs. I built bridges for a living. I'm highly intelligent. I just fucked up. I had a fucked up life. I lived in a fucked up manner and this is how it all ended up for me. But you know what? It's not over yet. I'm okay with that because I'm a better person for it.
“Forget about the stigma. Let's talk about God. Be the stigma if you want, but we're still humans. If you took five minutes to stop and talk to the average homeless guy, you would find out that he or she has a deeper, much richer background than you thought by judging and looking at them.
“I implore the government. I implore Mr. Smiley. I implore anybody who is in a higher level of government in this state: Spend the night outside in the winter in a two-person tent with no heat if you can.”
“Mayor Smiley, we demand that you stop the raids, stop pushing people around from place to place, and start helping them better SURVIVE outside now, until humane shelter and real housing that meets their needs is available to them.”
The approach to this housing crisis must be to develop effective paths to permanent supportive and deeply subsidized housing rather than to raid and clear encampments. The effort must involve all Rhode Islanders and all cities and towns. Mayors and City Councils should not be avoiding responsibility by claiming that it is only the state’s or the homeless-focused non-profits’ responsibility.
Mayor Smiley must STOP THE RAIDS: START THE AID
Instruct the Providence police to hold harmless and not arrest, ticket, or harass those in homeless encampments in Providence, given that his administration has done little to nothing to provide alternatives to their tents.
Identify sites for, purchase, and ship to Providence enough rapidly deployable shelters to provide beds for 200 individuals in at least three separate shelter villages. Provide wrap-around supportive services as well as electricity, bathrooms, showers, and meal sites for residents.
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Supporting organizations include Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE), Gather Together United as 1 (GTUA1), the Rhode Island Poor People’s Campaign, Better Lives Rhode Island (BLRI), Mathewson Church Housing Justice Committee, and Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE).