Discover more from Steve Ahlquist
Oped: Following a script, the Charles Street Tent Encampment was raided today
The Charles Street Tent Encampment is the latest in a series of high-profile encampment raids. Everything that happened here today followed a well-established pattern...
Sometimes dispassionate journalism doesn’t get you there.
Radio and television shock jock Gene Valicenti has once again inspired violence against unhoused Rhode Islanders, pushing cruel and cowardly political “leaders” such as Rhode Island Governor Daniel McKee and Providence Mayor Brett Smiley to raid the Charles Street Tent Encampment on Monday, disrupting and endangering the lives of nearly four dozen people.
A pattern was set by Governor McKee in December when he evicted the State House tent encampment. This pattern was repeated and refined when the state raided the Route 95 underpass encampment and has now been perfected at Charles Street.
A right-wing television and/or radio shock jock identifies an encampment of unhoused people, puts them on blast, and incites hatred and fear, rather than compassion for their plight.
State and/or city officials send police to issue eviction orders.
Fear of police drives out a bunch of unhoused people immediately. These people are not provided shelter, they simply relocate, as best as they are able, to other encampments.
Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor’s Director of Communications, Joey Lindstrom, meets with the unhoused people who remain.
Lindstrom secures shelter for some of the remaining people by any means necessary, whether by ignoring the state’s Coordinated Entry System (CES) and prioritizing the people in the targeted encampment over the hundreds of people who have been waiting, some of them for years, for housing or shelter placement, or using American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to secure temporary hotel placements.
Those who are lucky enough to be sent to shelters sometimes spend a night or two before being violated and kicked out because they are users of illegal substances or because their mental health issues lead to behaviors the shelters find objectionable. Those placed in hotels and motels get maybe 30 to 90 days of relative safety before they are evicted. Very few find any semblance of stability.
High-profile encampment raids are different from those that don’t generate media attention. In Warwick, Cranston, Woonsocket, and other parts of the state, encampment raids happen when the media isn’t paying attention. The Mayor of Warwick made the claim, without evidence, that the tents he cleared were all empty, ignoring the fact that whenever he’s not home his house is empty. The Mayor of Cranston pretended to not know that evictions were happening. The Mayor of Woonsocket seems to have targeted unhoused people with an almost gleeful disregard for their health and safety, telling them to go to Providence.
All these mayors were simply following the lead of Governor McKee, whose official policy regarding the unhoused in Rhode Island appears to be cruelty and neglect. Governor McKee ignored the calls of advocates who warned him of the crisis of homelessness last summer. When unhoused people staged a protest by camping out in front of the State House, he went to court to forcibly evict them and destroy their property. Governor McKee publicly doubted, without evidence, the number of unhoused people in the state, and when he established the Cranston Street Armory as a low-barrier warming station, he expected maybe 80 people to stay there. The number was consistently over 300, the number that Governor McKee had previously and publicly doubted.
For the longest time residents of the Route 95 Underpass Encampment in Pawtucket panhandled by the exit ramps, and donations were good and the people were generous. But after Gene Valicanti started putting that small encampment on blast, public opinion soured. People there told me that they were becoming the victims of verbal abuse from passersby, and what was once a rare occurrence was happening more and more frequently. They could see the results, in real-time, of Gene Valicanti’s hate speech.
Then, following the pattern, eviction orders were served. Soon after, or maybe concurrently, came Joey Lindstrom, who is less of a communications director than he is some sort of special operative for Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor, and by extension, Governor McKee. [Communications Directors, for instance, are supposed to reply to reporters when they ask questions. I am not the only reporter that Lindstrom routinely ignores.]
Lindstrom visited the Route 95 Underpass Encampment and arranged temporary housing for those who remained. In some ways, this is a great deal. People who have been unhoused for months and years suddenly find themselves offered shelter, not because there is shelter available, but because local hate media has identified them as a problem. Due to media attention, the state can’t go in and arrest people who have nothing - that looks like the fascism it is. Politicians, even the worst politicians, want to give the appearance that they are kind and compassionate. So Joey Lindstrom arranges for shelter beds and finds money for hotel rooms.
The process of doing this is hidden and behind the scenes. Requests for explanations of the process are ignored. When a reporter puts in an APRA (Access to Public Record Request), they receive outrageous bills for heavily redacted content. In my case, I received a bill for $1200 that I couldn’t begin to afford to pay, so I didn’t. The process remained secret.
The Coordinated Entry System is a federal requirement of HUD (Housing and Urban Development). Outreach workers perform assessments of unhoused people and that information is entered into CES. CES is a dynamic system that matches available shelter to clients in need. When a shelter bed opens that matches a person’s need, that person is helped. When Joey Lindstrom finds shelter beds or hotel rooms for people at an encampment put on blast by hack right-wing shock jocks like Gene Valicenti, he is, at best, bypassing CES. At worst, and it’s impossible to know given the secrecy with which he works, Lindstrom violates CES in contravention of HUD policies, possibly putting federal housing funds at stake.
There are hundreds of unhoused people in Rhode Island living in places that are unfit for human habitation. Governor McKee and Mayor Smiley will crow about the money they have moved here and there to deal with the issue. Yet there are hundreds of unhoused people in Rhode Island living in places that are unfit for human habitation.
The Charles Street Tent Encampment is the latest in a series of high-profile encampment raids. Everything that happened here today followed the pattern I laid out above. Of the forty people at the encampment, about half cleared out after the police issued eviction orders. The people who left carried what they could to other encampments. Of those left at the encampment, two people found shelter with Crossroads. Not missing a beat, Crossroads sent out a fundraising email praising their own efforts. Apparently, finding shelter for two out of 40 people is a victory.
Joey Lindstrom made several late-night visits to the Charles Street tent Encampment, meeting with people and offering them hotel rooms. Maybe seven people, maybe more, maybe less, found shelter this way. As I write this I am watching three men loading up carts with their possessions and pushing their way up Charles Street in the rain. With luck, they’ll find a place to pitch a tent. With more luck, they’ll stay in touch with their outreach workers. Many of those who left after the police gave out the eviction notices have fallen off the radar of outreach workers. It may be weeks before contact is re-established, it may be that contact has been lost forever.
Outreach workers worked all day, in the rain, helping people to load up their possessions into cars so they could be driven to a shelter or another encampment. Some people here really didn’t want to leave. The people here look out for each other. It’s easy to overdose when you’re alone in a tent, out of sight. It’s safer to have people around who can look out for you, and perhaps administer Narcan. It’s easier to be the victim of violence when there are one or two or three of you in a group and harder when there is a small community of people looking out for each other.
Encampment raids make it harder for people dealing with substance use and mental health issues to find the stability and support they need. None of us are at our best when we suffer traumatic loss, and the loss of a community and safety are especially traumatic for those who have so little.
There are alternatives to this cruelty. We could, in the absence of available housing, provide safe areas for people to pitch a tent or park a vehicle if they are living in their car. These areas could have port-o-potties, food distribution, sharps boxes, medical outreach, mental health outreach, and other necessary services in a place where people could feel safe and looked after. But our political leaders don’t want that, because they think it makes our cities, towns, and state look like the kind of place that can’t house their own people and can’t provide essential services to those in need. They would rather pretend the problem doesn’t exist, like when Governor McKee openly doubted the number of unhoused people in the state or when the Mayor of Cranston pretended he didn’t know about the encampment raids, or when the Mayor of Warwick pretended the encampment he destroyed was empty.
In the meantime, our public officials continue to feed the beast that is Gene Valicenti and his radio and television hatefest. They continue to pander to his outrage and his incitements to hate and racism. When you see Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor on television with Gene Valicanti, or hear Providence Mayor Brett Smiley on the radio with Gene Valicanti, hold them accountable. Ask them why they are not pushing back against his hateful speech. Ask them why they act to criminalize poverty at his behest. Ask them why they feel the need to cater to Gene Valicenti’s cruel and cowardly worldview.
Here’s the Access to Public Records Act Request I sent to the Secretary of Housing today:
I need to know the source of the funds for the housing that has been provided to the people at the Charles Street Tent Encampment. I need to know how many people were housed. I need to know where they were housed and whether this was through the Coordinated Entry System (CES) or not. I need to know if you or your office was involved in altering the assessments that determine placement on the CES. I need copies of contracts and copies of agreements between state or city or advocates working on behalf of the state or city and the hotels, motels or apartments that have been secured.
This is a request for comment, a request for an interview, and an APRA. I am including the Attorney General’s open government on this email because in the past this office has been unresponsive. Please reply to this email to confirm receipt and be sure to comply within the required ten days.
I know your office likes to hide behind startlingly large bills for APRA requests, so I am also requesting a waiver. That said, such large bills have protected your office in the past, so I will not be surprised by an inadequate response.
As the Attorney General has said, APRA is a floor, not a ceiling. Maybe this time he’ll actually defend that principle.