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HOMELESSNESS

How private citizens are taking Rhode Island’s housing crisis into their own hands

Residents who never envisioned their lives on the streets are being pushed out of homes and others are becoming chronically unhoused. David Gerard O’Connor is trying to help with Operation Hunker Down, a makeshift shelter he opened on his own

David O'Connor decided to open a makeshift homeless shelter in the former American Lithuanian Citizens Beneficial Club, called Operation Hunker Down.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — David Gerard O’Connor had planned to turn the shuttered American Lithuanian Citizens Beneficial Club building on Smith Street into a community center, hosting events and welcoming back regulars. Instead, on a cold night in January, he opened the old building to five homeless people who had nowhere else to turn, letting them sleep on mattresses he’d placed on the function hall’s floor.

He dubbed the makeshift shelter Operation Hunker Down. Now, less than a month later, 35 to 45 people sleep there on any given night.

“I’ve seen a lot of these people around the neighborhood,” said O’Connor, a 2014 Providence College graduate. “No matter their circumstance, they are still human. They deserve a warm place to sleep at night.”

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People come from all over the state. They carry heavy backpacks with most or all of their personal possessions. Some are veterans of the armed services, others are parents dreaming of being reunited with their children. Some used to have homes, others were priced out due to skyrocketing rents. Some admit they feel lost.

“Someone gave me Narcan last night to save me. But the truth is, I didn’t really want to come back,” one man in his 50s, who did not want to give his name, told the Globe. “I’m not suicidal. I just don’t think I can be saved anymore.”

The shuttered American Lithuanian Citizens Beneficial Club on Smith Street is now a unique homeless shelter. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

The state is moving slowly to address the rapidly growing housing crisis, holding onto the bulk of the $1.13 billion in American Rescue Plan funds as lawmakers debate how to spend it wisely. Advocates for the unhoused stretch their limited resources to try to help as many people as possible.

“Homelessness is a trigger. Someone could be sober for a number of years, but if they don’t have a place to rest their head at night, they are now in an emergency situation,” said O’Connor, who is raising money on GoFundMe for the shelter. “And it’s going to be really hard to stay clean.”

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The Lithuanian Club still owns the building, but O’Connor, who also 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.

He sought advice from Providence police and worked closely with the fire marshal to make sure the old social club building was up to code. A handful of volunteers, some of them close to homelessness themselves, help keep the place running.

Ehren Hunt, a housing specialist at Tri-County Community Action Agency, lives near Operation Hunker Down and stopped by recently for a walk-through.

“They need a lot. But they are doing the work. They are sheltering people. They’re the ones getting it done right now,” he said.

“This is a special place,” said Desiree Cabbabe, a volunteer. “Sure, everyone comes with their own baggage and there’s going to be tiffs. But this place has something magical about it.

“We’re working with what we’ve got. We don’t have state funding. We’re like a month into this,” Cabbabe said. “I was on a call earlier with people who actually get paid to work in homeless services. They’re all talk and want to keep having discussions about what we need.”

“But I don’t have time for talk. We cannot deal with the red tape and bureaucracy,” she continued. “These people need a place to sleep. They need services. And they need to eat.”

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The people sheltering at Operation Hunker Down have slipped through most of the system’s cracks, and on a recent visit, many said they believe the state has turned its back on them.

David Gerard O’Connor, left, hands out pizza at Operation Hunker Down. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
The bar in the shuttered American Lithuanian Citizens Beneficial Club used to host comedy nights and serve drinks to regulars. Now, it is a collection point for donations of clothing and blankets for the homeless. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Unlike at other, more-regulated homeless shelters, residents at Operation Hunker Down can come and go as they please — they’re not required to leave during the day and only stay at night. Couples are allowed to sleep on the same mattress together. During several recent visits, residents said Operation Hunker Down is the first place where they felt “human again” in some time.

Upstairs, where people sleep, lights are often kept dim, even during the day. Volunteers ask that people not do drugs while they’re here, but people aren’t kicked out if they’re high. It’s unclear whether people are dozing on drugs like fentanyl or just have nothing else to do. Music plays through a small speaker, echoing in the former function hall.

Downstairs, boxes of donated goods are piled up, waiting to be organized by residents and volunteers. It’s loud, and people weave their way around the clutter. Some are screaming, not necessarily at anything in particular. Some residents try to keep the place clean and organized. Volunteers intervene when they have to. Outreach and recovery center workers, volunteers with a few hours to spare, and more and more people seeking shelter show up at the side door daily.

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“Every day I come back here, there’s more and more people looking for a place to stay,” said O’Connor.

Robert "Birdie" Mills, 56, shows a visitor where he sleeps, in a section of the makeshift emergency shelter at Operation Hunker Down that hardly has any insulation. "It’s a roof, and I have a mattress. That's OK for me right now," he said.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

The “house,” as the residents are starting to call it, begins to wake up with activity around 11:45 a.m. On a recent visit, two-day-old pastries donated by a local bakery sat in a box, free for the taking. Robert “Birdie” Mills, 56, sat on a bar stool on the first floor, watching a show on a TV mounted to the wall. He’s one of the only resident volunteers, keeping an eye out overnight as security.

“There’s a lot of different personalities here. And we all come with our own baggage,” he said.

Mills stays in a secluded part of the shelter, away from other residents, but is in a room with no insulation. “It’s a roof, and I have a mattress. That’s OK for me right now,” he said. His previous landlord “terrorized” him for two years before he left, he said. His Section 8 extension expired.

For nine years, he attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings regularly, sponsored others, ran soup kitchens, helped open a men’s shelter in his hometown of Woonsocket, organized “sober dances,” prayed a lot, and stayed clean. But he relapsed in August.

“Most of the guys here know me from the community, being their advocate. Now I’m here with them,” he said. “It’s hard to go from helping the homeless to being homeless.”

Some of the residents at Operation Hunker Down had homes before rents skyrocketed. Richard, 48, of Warwick, ended up at the shelter after his landlord tried to raise his rent by another $250 each month.

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“I have two kids,” he said, taking a break from laying down tile in the kitchen. He works full time for a fixed salary as a property maintenance man. He doesn’t want to give his last name, to protect his kids. “If I paid that, I wouldn’t be able to help support them. If I stay, can’t pay, and get evicted, that’s on my record. Who is going to rent to me then?”

Volunteers have put up art and motivational signs inside Operation Hunker Down. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
People gather outside the shelter on Smith Street.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Denise, 66, was sitting at a table in the shelter’s makeshift living room, formerly the bar, while picking at a muffin and drinking tea. She’s considered elderly, is on “every housing list you can think of,” but can’t understand why she hasn’t gotten a call back for a room in almost two years.

A scrawny young woman stormed into the room while Denise was speaking and started screaming: “I hope none of you wake up. I hate you all.” She opened boxes of donated goods, throwing objects around as a volunteer tried to settle her down.

“This right here,” Denise whispered, circling her finger around the room, “is my worst nightmare. I don’t belong here.”

She also doesn’t want to give her last name. She grew up in Bristol and Warren and receives Social Security checks each month, but it’s impossible, she said, to find an apartment where she can afford the rent. The last place she lived was a four-bedroom and she rented one of the rooms. That too, she said as her eyes widened, was not for her.

“They were all hooked on dope. Shooting heroin and smoking crack. That’s not where I belong. I don’t do drugs,” she said. She left after the landlord tried to raise her rent to a figure she could no longer afford. She’s working with a case manager, but while living at another homeless service facility in South Providence, she was robbed.

“What I’m wearing and carrying here is all I’ve got. I don’t have anything else,” she said.

Michael Smith, 65, is a homeless, disabled veteran. He is currently sheltering at the former American Lithuanian Citizens Beneficial Club on Smith Street. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

On a recent visit, Michael Smith, 65, was puttering around the first floor of the shelter. A pint of something in the pocket of his jacket sloshed as he moved.

A disabled veteran, he joined the Army at 17 and, when he got out, joined the Navy, like his father. He said he’s been struggling to get housing for years. “What happened to ‘no man gets left behind’?” he quipped.

In 2021, he was told he’d be able to get housing after he went through a 30-day detox program. He claims he finished the program, but was placed in a “drug-infested” facility in Providence, off Elmwood Avenue. He said he “had enough” and left after parts of the ceiling fell on him while he was brewing coffee.

Shortly after, he said, he was deemed incompetent to handle his own finances at a hearing he said he was never informed of, even though he owns a car and is a supportive father to his son, who is in the military. Now, if he wants money from his own pension, he has to go through a woman at Veterans Affairs.

He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, causing him to wake up in the middle of the night, sweating, and in a panic. Hesaid he’s had two strokes, congenital heart disease, and blood clots.

When he arrived at the old Legion, he picked the only military cot of all the mattresses to sleep on.

“Old habits die hard,” he said as his hands shook, reaching for the bottle in his jacket.

Michael Smith, 65, gets a hug from another homeless resident who is also staying in the former American Lithuanian Citizens Beneficial Club. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff



Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.