PROVIDENCE — Days before the Nov. 1 deadline that it had imposed for people to leave, the city removed a West End homeless encampment, heading off a potential confrontation but angering service providers.
The city said they’d monitored the site on Wilson Street for several days, and believed everyone there had already left. Workers on Oct. 28 removed four tents that the city said did not appear to have other personal effects, like blankets, and had fences erected around the site so nobody could get back in. The belongings were moved into storage.
“Nobody got arrested, nobody got hurt,” said Public Safety Commissioner Steven M. Paré about the removal. “The property is no longer occupied by campers. And we did the best we could under the circumstances.”
The quiet resolution to a long-simmering problem dismayed House of Hope CDC, a provider of services for homeless people, which raised questions about whether the city’s action violated the state’s Homeless Bill of Rights. That law says a person experiencing homelessness has “the right to a reasonable expectation of privacy in his or her personal property to the same extent as personal property in a permanent residence.”
“There’s a potential concern there for how their personal property was treated,” said Laura Jaworski, House of Hope’s executive director.
The site is partially owned by a company planning to redevelop it, and the Providence Redevelopment Agency. The part owned by the city agency will eventually be part of the development, which will include housing, renovating and repurposing a nearby mill, and parking.
Jaworski said her organization has not heard from anyone whose items were removed, and it is hard to tell, in an encampment that is by nature transient, whether some people were still staying there and hoping to get back in before Monday. But, she noted, the city had said some services, like trash removal and a portable toilet, would continue until that day.
“There was an opportunity there, and I think (the city) seized on it,” Jaworski said.
On Sunday morning, the site was surrounded by a new fence but still strewn with debris, which the city said it would soon work on starting to clear. The city posted notices on the new fencing that any belongings that had been left behind were being kept in storage. The notices were post-dated to Tuesday, Nov. 2 — the day after the original deadline.
At its peak, around 15 people were living in the encampment, which started sometime in late spring. After the city told people they had to leave in early June, Mayor Jorge Elorza pledged that the city would not remove the encampment until they had short-term and mid-term solutions, and progress toward a long-term solution.
When the city handed out new notices on Oct. 20 telling people they had to leave by Monday, Nov. 1, Elorza said he’d kept his word on solutions. He pointed to the $500,000 in shelter funding the city had allocated from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, among other measures. Organizations like House of Hope disagree that there have been any solutions, even short-term ones.
In the days after the city delivered the notice on Oct. 20, about four people were still living there, according to people who lived at the site. Some were able to get a week in a hotel, according to the councilwoman representing the area, part of a joint effort that also included the company planning to develop the site.
The hotels that at least some of the residents got will last until Tuesday, a day after the original deadline to leave the site, according to Jaworski. The hotels were not arranged by her organization, and she said she did not consider them a solution at a time when homelessness is at unprecedented levels.
“It’s wonderful that on a night like tonight, someone is able to have a warm, safe space to be in,” Jaworski said in an interview on a rainy Saturday. “But what is going to happen on November 2?”
A portion of the fenced-in lot had been bulldozed by the developer, Knight & Swan, as it prepared to do work on the site, the city said previously.
But the city was motivated by safety, not the interests of the development, in deciding to act on the encampment, said Paré, the city public safety commissioner.
The city received about a dozen calls for police or rescue services over the summer, including one for a tent on fire — it was out by the time first-responders were there — and a non-fatal overdose in or around the area.
The city also received numerous complaints from neighbors, Paré said.
Part of the calculation around the timing, Paré acknowledged, was the desire to avoid a standoff on Monday with people who weren’t even involved in the encampment. It’s a complex situation, he said, that wouldn’t be solved by removing encampments one by one.
“We should be, as a state and a country, doing better for those that find themselves without shelter,” Paré said.