PROVIDENCE — City officials are attempting to oust about 15 people living in tents on a vacant lot in the West End, with police giving them 48 hours to clear out or face civil and criminal prosecution.
But during a news conference Thursday, Diumila “Matilda” Almonte said that she and others living there are cleaning up the abandoned lot, planting vegetables and looking out for one another until they find a more permanent place to live, hopefully by the end of summer.
“This is my home. It may be temporary, but it’s my home for now,” Almonte said. “Let us be – let us be human beings.”
Benjamin N. Smith, a spokesman for Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza, said, “The current situation at the encampment along Wilson Street is unsafe for the people living there. The city is working with social service providers to offer them safe, stable shelter and additional resources.”
But Almonte said, “Everybody in the community will tell you they feel safe here.” She said, “We welcome anyone to come get to know the people who stay here. They are amazing people, and their stories deserve to be just as well.”
She said city police used bolt cutters to get through a gate and deliver notices to those living on the vacant lot on Wednesday.
“To whom it may concern,” the notice reads. “You are hereby notified that you must vacate the property within the next 48 hours. Failure to do so will result in consequences to include civil and criminal prosecution. We strongly encourage you to connect with the following service providers.”
The notice, signed by Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven M. Paré, listed two people to contact at the House of Hope Community Development Corporation.
But advocates say shelters are overflowing and housing is expensive and scarce.
“The system is broken,” Providence College sociology Professor Eric Hirsch said. “The social service agencies don’t have the resources to help them.”
As of Wednesday, the waiting list for individual or family shelters had reached 657 people, and 212 people were staying in a state-supported hotel for people experiencing homelessness, Hirsch said. “So we can’t put them in shelters,” he said.
House of Hope executive director Laura Jaworski said busting up encampments is counterproductive, sapping the energy of service providers without doing anything to address the root causes. “It sets us back,” she said. “It’s a short-sighted win.”
Sara Melucci, outreach program manager for House of Hope, said, “This isn’t for a lack of effort or engagement or anything, it’s truly a result of a lack of long-term investment in affordable housing and in short-term solutions.”
The paved lot, surrounded by a chain link fence and trees, has been owned by Abby Roads Properties LLC. But the Providence Redevelopment Agency has moved to take the property and other nearby vacant parcels by eminent domain to make way for new artist studios and an indoor farmers market, city officials say.
Almonte, 31, said she and her husband were the first to begin living on the lot about two weeks ago, and now others have set up tents next to theirs. She said she ended up without a home after someone burned their RV.
Almonte said the lot was strewn with broken glass and car parts when they first arrived. But they’ve cleaned it up, and made a garden using wooden pallets and an abandoned truck bed to grow lettuce, tomatoes, oregano, and flowers.
They created a makeshift shower out of pallets and a five-gallon pail with holes in the bottom. And supporters have donated water, food, and even a port-a-potty that now has signs taped to it reading “100s In The Streets. Need Action From Our Gov” and “Shame. Give Us Safe Lots.”
Almonte said she would like to host Narcotics Anonymous meetings at the site, and she is bringing in someone to do yoga with those living there.
After being homeless on and off since age 18, Almonte said, “This is the most community I have felt, other than the community I created between me, my husband and my kids.”
She said she understands why some neighbors have objected to the encampment, but she said, “We contribute to the community. We keep things as clean as possible. Anybody that says this place is unsafe is just not giving us a chance to get to know us.”
Almonte said some have talked about the possibility of getting vouchers to pay for hotel rooms. “But we don’t want a three-day solution because we are going to end up right back doing the same thing,” she said. If no permanent solution is found, she said, “I’m standing my ground.”
Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz, a member of the state Equity Council who is running for governor in 2022, attended the news conference, saying that while some have criticized the presence of a port-a-potty, it will improve public health and make the conditions as humane as possible under the circumstances. He said homeless people in California have ended up with hepatitis because of unsanitary conditions there.
Muñoz said he and state Senator Tiara Mack, a Providence Democrat, are helping the National Guard organize a COVID-19 vaccine clinic at the site Sunday. And a community barbecue is planned in the nearby Fuller Street Park at noon Sunday.
“Based on the data, there is no reason the city and state can’t solve the challenge of homelessness in Rhode Island,” Muñoz said. “The numbers are small in Rhode Island – less than 1,000 people.”
Hirsch said 390 people were living outside in Rhode Island in May. Those numbers are higher in part because the state reduced the number of people staying in shelters during the pandemic, he said. Others were afraid to enter shelters because of COVID-19, and others lost their jobs or their homes because of the pandemic, he said.
Gregory Waksmulski, a member of the Rhode Island Homeless Bill of Rights Defense Committee, urged people to contact Governor Daniel J. McKee and ask him to give a property tax break to property owners who would provide place for people to stay in cars, campers, or tents with ready access to services.
And he urged people to contact Elorza, saying, “Tell him we don’t appreciate repression from the state. We are not going to stand for it. This isn’t a good look.”
Waksmulski said Almonte saw an abandoned lot, strewn with old car parts and broken glass, as a place where people could find shelter and grow food.
“She said there are an awful lot of people sleeping in the graveyard, there’s an awful lot of people sleeping under the overpass,” he said. “These people have been bounced out of shelters, these people don’t have anywhere to go, what can we do? Can we build a garden so these people can sleep in there? So that is what Matilda did. She had this vision.”