PROVIDENCE — Public safety officials on Wednesday delivered a notice to a West End homeless encampment telling them they had to vacate by Nov. 1, sparking criticism from some advocates for homeless people but relief from the councilwoman representing the area.
The notice was distributed by Steven M. Paré, the commissioner of public safety in Providence. The notice told people who are there that possessions left on site would be removed and stored for 30 days, and that city services including trash removal and portable toilets would end after Nov. 1. The notice encouraged people to call the Coalition to End Homelessness for assistance and shelter placement.
But waiting lists for shelters are extensive, with more than 1,000 people competing for limited spots.
Paré said in an interview that the city was working with service providers to find placement for people now living on the property in the vacant lot on Wilson and Fuller streets.
“We don’t have a specific place right now, but we’re working with the agencies that could help place them,” Paré said.
Paré added: “It’s a public safety issue, and it has continued for several months. We’re trying to help get them placement. But it continues to be a public safety concern.”
The encampment became a flash point in the city when it appeared earlier this year. The city in June distributed notices to the people living there, saying they had to leave within 48 hours or else face “consequences to include civil and criminal prosecution.”
Mayor Jorge Elorza intervened at the time, saying that the city would not have them move until there was a short-term solution, a mid-term solution, and progress toward a long-term solution.
Elorza said in an interview with the Globe on Wednesday that he felt he’d kept his word. He cited, among other things, the roughly $500,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds the city is allocating to make shelter beds available. They’re finalizing the contract now, Elorza said. More help for housing is on the way long-term, he said.
One ongoing challenge, he said, is that some people have preferred not to move to places that have been available, Elorza said.
“What we will do as a city is, we will make spaces available, and it is my hope that the remaining people there not only benefit but take advantage of this,” Elorza said.
He also said there have been police responses and quality of life complaints stemming from the encampment.
“We know that not only from a housing perspective, but from a public safety perspective, the situation there is unsustainable,” Elorza said. He added: “No one should be sleeping in tents. No one should be sleeping outside. That’s not a short-, mid- or long-term solution.”
According to people on scene after the police handed out the notices on Wednesday, some of those who have lived there have been offered hotel rooms. About half a dozen others, though, remained in tents around the lot Wednesday afternoon.
Andrew Grande, director of media relations for Elorza’s office, said in an emailed statement that everyone who resided in the lot has received crisis and housing assessments and have been placed on shelter and housing waiting lists if they wanted to be.
“In total, the city has invested over $5 million this year in support for Providence residents experiencing or at imminent risk of homelessness,” Grande said.
Grande said the site is owned by the Providence Redevelopment Agency, and was approved in the spring for a transfer to a developer, Knight & Swan, for a mixed-use project. That project would include renovating the adjacent mill complex, and adding affordable housing and parking.
On Tuesday, about half the site as razed by a bulldozer. Asked about the bulldozing, Grande said the developer started doing preliminary work on lots that it already owned, Grande said.
“The developer spoke with the individuals on the encampment site and received their consent for them to move to the (Providence Redevelopment Agency) owned lot before work began,” Grande said.
Councilwoman Mary Kay Harris was on scene when police handed out the notices to vacate on Wednesday. She said she has been working with members of the community and the property owner developer itself to find funding for hotel rooms for people who have been living at the site. They’ve been able to secure some hotel rooms, which will last for one week, Harris said. She said she is trying to get a second week of hotel rooms for those people.
Harris couldn’t say that everyone who was there would be able to get a hotel room, and noted that there’s been some turnover in who’s actually living there. Her constituents have repeatedly raised concerns about the encampment, she said. It’s currently strewn with trash, and poses health and sanitation risks, Harris said.
“We are doing the best we can,” Harris said. “We’ve been working with the people — the city has done all they can.”
Harris said telling the encampment to leave by Nov. 1 was good for all her constituents — not only those who live in homes nearby, but also the people living in the encampment.
Some advocates for homeless people, though, criticized the move.
“I think it’s cruel and unjust,” said Laura Jaworski, the executive director of House of Hope CDC, a homeless services provider and affordable housing developer.
On Wednesday, Jaworski recalled Elorza’s words about not making the homeless people leave until there are short-term, mid-term and progress toward long-term solutions.
“That has not yet happened,” Jaworski said, contradicting the mayor’s position. “I think on the cusp of a winter season particularly, it’s particularly cruel.”
House of Hope’s outreach workers have been at the site almost every day for the past few months, Jaworski said.
Advocates for homeless people say stable housing is difficult to find, and long waiting lists for shelters mean there are few options for those who need immediate assistance. And, they say, breaking up encampments just drives people away from getting the help they need. It doesn’t solve the issue, it just spreads it around, service providers say.
Caitlin Frumerie, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness, rattled off the sobering statistics: More than 1,000 people on a waiting list for at-capacity shelters, more than 600 Rhode Islanders living outside in the last 30 days alone, and stimulus money that appears to be six to eight months away.
Wilson Street is not the only encampment in the state that’s at risk, Frumerie noted. There are dozens and dozens around the state.
“They’re just as cold, hungry, and in need, too,” Frumerie said. “It is in every corner of this state and our elected officials aren’t taking this crisis as the emergency that it is. We have people dying. It’s just awful. We need the Governor to act immediately to convene a task force and put serious financial and political will behind addressing our statewide emergency.”