PROVIDENCE — Not far from the shadow cast by the capitol building’s marble dome lies Smith Hill, a Providence neighborhood that has seen its fair share of struggles. Bordering downtown and defined by the Woonasquatucket River, the Chad Brown Public Housing complex, and its proximity to the lively Elmhurst neighborhood to the West, Smith Hill is an urban corridor that has attracted immigrants for two centuries. The factories and mills that once employed them have closed down. Developers and local institutions have looked to gentrify the area, but its residents and small business owners have relentlessly pushed them back.
But as the housing crisis in Rhode Island escalates, Smith Hill is seeing the effects. Generational trauma. Substance use and addiction. A new level of desperation and need, visible in a new way, now on street corners at night or congregating in front of liquor stores during the day.
On Smith Street, the building that was once the American Lithuanian Citizens Beneficial Club has become a makeshift emergency homeless shelter called “Operation Hunker Down.”
The Lithuanian Club still owns the building, but David Gerard O’Connor, a 2014 Providence College graduate who teaches online at Fusion Academy, took over operations recently. He hopes to someday have a community center in the building, which used to host birthday parties and other functions. But right now, the need to shelter people is urgent.
“It was Jan. 11. I looked at the screen on my computer after teaching a class and saw that it was going to be 10 degrees outside,” he said. He knew that people were sleeping outside, and mostly in encampments that were getting dismantled by the city and police. “I looked around and realized that I needed to do something.”
He invited five people to stay in the building that night, setting up mattresses in the old function hall. Less than a month later, there were 35 to 45 people sleeping at Operation Hunker Down on any particular night. Volunteers keep the place running, and they have faced hurdle after hurdle: None of them are paid, the shelter does not receive funding from the city or the state, at least one of them needs to be on premises at all times, and there are fewer than five people who volunteer consistently. Some of them are close to homelessness themselves.
Here are some of their stories.
Erica Woods, 33
Erica Woods carried her 2-year-old daughter on her hip as she climbed the stairs to where the residents’ beds are. Unlike other shelters, which make residents leave during the day, Operation Hunker Down allows them to come and go as they please. While some are sleeping, others left for their full-time jobs hours ago. Woods smiled at a young woman who is cleaning herself with a washcloth (there are no showers available at the facility yet).
Woods was evicted from her West Warwick apartment this month after living there for five years and is now living in her mother’s one-bedroom apartment with all four of her children. She works as a photographer, but it’s the offseason; she also writes and performs her own music.
“Like a lot of the people here, I come from a really abusive relationship,” she said. She does not collect child support from the father of her children, and would rather stay away from him. “He’s somewhat reformed now, and sort of in their lives.”
She volunteers at Operation Hunker Down with her toddler in tow. She brought scores of art supplies, paintings, and books to the makeshift shelter. “I want it to feel as homey as I can,” she said.
Woods said she’d rather not get a Section 8 voucher because based on what she’s seen, domestic violence is “rampant” in the few places where she would be able to get approved housing.
“It’s not a snobby thing. I just want to raise my children in the safest place I can. I don’t want them to witness what we ran away from,” she said.
Three residents started arguing, with their voices rising, and fingers pointing at one another. But
when Woods’s daughter ran in, squealing at her stuffed animal, the residents stopped, looked, and smiled. One started laughing with her. Their argument stopped.
“I come from a place that’s similar to a lot of these people,” Woods said. “I ran from an abusive relationship. The only reason I’m not on the streets is because I have the support of my mother. Without her, I’d be here, too.”
Charles “Chuckie” Salisbury, 63
Charles “Chuckie” Salisbury, 63, played another round of pool on the coffee and liquor-stained table left over from the building’s social club days. He grew up in the Hartford Projects in Providence and worked in the kitchen at the Biltmore Hotel (now the Graduate Providence) for five years after college. He gave a play-by-play of his life’s story rapidly, dropping names of prominent people he claimed to know, and about his time as a martial arts fighter.
“I cracked a guy’s rib in 16 seconds. I was doing that all the time,” he boasted.
He said he’s committed armed robberies, detailing exactly how he did it. But he was then sent to prison for 17 years for attempted murder after someone beat up his sister. He left prison with $5,000, his wife dead. He visits her grave when he can.
“She showed me what a man is. She taught me kindness, not to spit or swear, and to be a Christian. All things I didn’t know before,” he said.
His pastor from the Mathewson Street United Methodist Church, which famously helps those struggling with housing insecurity, recommended that he come to Operation Hunker Down after he almost got into a fight at a different shelter with a man for “beating the hell out of a woman” in front of him.
“I was raised surrounded by strong women,” he said, adding that he has two daughters and a son, all now grown and living in different states. “Hurting women isn’t OK with me.”
Christina Cruz, 32, and Jay Goddard, 35
After spending much of the day upstairs, Christina Cruz, 32, made her way downstairs and began cleaning the living area. Her boyfriend of the last five years, Jay Goddard, 35, joined her.
She’s pending disability after she hurt her hand and wrist attempting suicide. But she said while she’s in the shelter, she wants to study to get her real estate license. She previously worked as a property manager. He works as a carpenter.
They both suffer from substance abuse.
“I was in a sober home before this. She was in a program,” said Goddard. “Then our programs ended. And Rhode Island doesn’t really have an after-care program so we were put out on the street and right back to where we were before.”
Goddard spent the majority of his check to stay at a hotel for a week. The next week, they stayed inside a storage unit. After that, they pitched a tent. Cruz’s parents aren’t alive. Goddard said he has his mom but she isn’t “financially stable.”
“How do you stay clean when you’re on the streets, cold, and everyone else is getting high? You try, but it’s really hard to not want to just forget everything,” he said.
They aren’t the only couple staying together at the shelter, but are, by far, the most affectionate. Goddard holds Cruz’s hand whenever they aren’t actively doing something. They snuggle next to each other on top of their mattress, while eating, or whenever they step out to have a smoke outside.
“We’re just on our own. Together,” said Goddard, looking at her. “Someday, when all of this is over, I’m going to make her a Goddard.”
Anteneh Kutenplon-Rayess, 25
Anteneh Kutenplon-Rayess, another volunteer, graduated from Barrington High School in 2014 after he and his family moved to Rhode Island from Ethiopia. He has a home to return to, but is known to work overnights at the shelter and stay throughout the day and into a second night, without sleeping, if he’s needed.
“I don’t really like that phrase ‘giving back.’ It makes it sound like the problem has been resolved. This is ‘giving forward.’ You never know if you or someone you love is in this situation,” he said. “I’ll sleep when I can.”
Richie Buzon, 39
Richie Buzon, 39, just finished getting high outside. Almost two years ago, after being sober for over seven years, he relapsed, after a tragedy in his life. He spends about $30 a day now to keep up with his fentanyl habit.
“I think I’m ready to get sober pretty soon. I don’t think I can do this anymore,” said Buzon, who said he started using when he was 20 after a car accident left him with an opioid prescription. The bottle was gone in three days.
Buzon was a commercial fisherman who owned his own home. He walked away from “everything” in April 2020 for drugs. He said his mom, who lives in South County, said he can come home anytime, as long as he’s sober.
Compared to many of the others that stay at Operation Hunker Down, Buzon has had a more “normal” life: A loving childhood, solid job, and a strong support system.
“Did I grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth? Well, no. But I know I had it pretty good,” he said. “Never thought I’d end up in a shelter. That’s for sure.
“But I’m not satisfied with living a normal life. I like the roller coaster. The street life. I wish I wasn’t that way,” he said.
When asked what would make him satisfied enough to get and stay sober, he paused for more than a minute, looking down at the floor.
“I really don’t know what would make me truly happy. I’m not happy now. I wasn’t happy before,” he said, looking up. “And that truly scares the hell out of me.”
Alexa Gagosz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.