PROVIDENCE — More than 20 people could be back on the street after the state’s fire board ordered Operation Hunker Down, a makeshift emergency homeless shelter in the Smith Hill section of Providence, to lower its capacity to 16 people.
David Gerard O’Connor opened Operation Hunker Down in the shuttered American Lithuanian Citizens Beneficial Club building on Smith Street in January, inviting five homeless people to sleep on mattresses in the old building on a night when temperatures dipped below zero. Less than a month later, 35 to 45 people were sleeping there on any given night, as previously reported by the Boston Globe.
At the time, O’Connor sought advice from Providence police and worked closely with the local 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.
But after providing shelter, outreach, food, and other support services for nearly three months, the state fire board told the shelter on Tuesday that they had 72 hours — until 1 p.m. on Friday — to dwindle its capacity down to 16 people. There were more than 40 people staying there as of Tuesday.
The volunteers were also given 15 days to remove “combustibles,” or furniture.
“I want to continue to act in good faith. They said we can stand our ground, but then it’s a criminal offense,” O’Connor told the Globe Tuesday night, after the meeting. “I’m all in favor of fire and safety and mitigating those issues. But my frustration is the 72 hours to remove people. They gave me 15 days to remove dressers. I literally said, ‘Can we switch those?’ That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Where do you think people are going? Do you think people just like hanging out here? It’s just backwards thinking,” said O’Connor, who had outreach workers come to Operation Hunker Down on Tuesday to help residents with shelter and recovery service options. “Many aren’t going to regular shelters. It’s why they are here. So now they’re going back to the streets.”
Local zoning laws require shelters to have a maximum capacity of 16 residents, the Rhode Island Fire Safety Code Board of Appeals and Review told the Globe in a statement on Wednesday. If there are more than 16 people living there, then it’s considered a dorm, a boarding room, or a hotel, O’Connor was told.
O’Connor said the fire marshals gave him a list of fire and safety recommendations to address in the building, and he and the other volunteers were working through the list.
During the Tuesday meeting, the fire board also heard testimony from the Providence Fire Department and the Office of the State Fire Marshal regarding unsafe conditions at the shelter, according to the board’s statement to the Globe. They also heard from people who live in the neighborhood, one of whom railed against residents of the shelter.
Brian DeChambeau, who lives in a custom-made home on a small lot next to the Lithuanian Club building, accused residents of Operation Hunker Down of dealing drugs and “illicit activity” in the area. He said he had cameras around his property, which he installed after his windshield was broken but before Operation Hunker Down opened, and knew there were drug deals in the area. He acknowledged that he uses those cameras to monitor residents of the shelter.
DeChambeau, who also works as a manager for research and evaluation at Rhode Island Housing, defended recording the shelter’s residents during a phone interview with the Globe Tuesday night. He said he was not speaking from his position at the housing agency, but as a private citizen.
“I really started recording because the amount of illicit activity (in the area) tripled,” he told the Globe. “That ranged from open drug use, open drug deals, finding needles around, and then more (situations) that were sexual in nature. That obviously makes me uncomfortable for my wife and the kids that go to school here.”
“There’s a lot of kids in the neighborhood that don’t have anything to do and they will steal packages right off front porches. So I give those kids a job, like gardening and what not,” said DeChambeau, who said he moved to Smith Hill about five years ago. “They are lucky that I live here and not someone else. And then (Operation Hunker Down) moved in.”
“The project is an absolute blight on the neighborhood, and the entire community is working to get it shut down,” he wrote his message, in which he also accused O’Connor of “working to get ahold of public funds” and called the shelter a “burden” and an example of “rich kids’ pet projects.” He signed the message: “Thanks, The Neighbors.”
In a comment posted on a fundraising page for Operation Hunker Down in mid-March, DeChambeau, who donated $5, wrote: “These people are literally buying the drugs for people staying there. Not reporting ODs and assaults too, so they can try to get public funding. Check out @operationhunkerdownPVD on Instagram.”
On the Instagram account, which DeChambeau confirmed was his, DeChambeau publicly posted images and video captured by the cameras on his property. Some of posts were of Operation Hunker Down residents dumping trash, or meeting people in cars on the street. He also shared images of piles of garbage cans, needles on the ground, and safe needle disposal boxes inside the facility’s windows.
While the Instagram account was active Tuesday afternoon, it was made private that evening and by 8:15 p.m. that night it had been taken down.
When asked where the people who will be displaced could go, DeChambeau said he works in a policy role at Rhode Island Housing and it’s not his job to offer advice on specific programs or on shelters.
“I don’t know what’s most appropriate for them,” he said. “There’s a lot of people that need help. And it’s the government’s responsibility to help them. Not random people.”
When asked to respond to DeChambeau’s allegations, O’Connor said 911 is always called when there’s an overdose, even when someone does not want to be treated. While volunteers at Operation Hunker Down ask that residents not use drugs, the shelter does not turn away people if they are high, O’Connor confirmed, and safe needle disposal boxes are visible throughout the building.
“There was one individual that overdosed, was given Narcan, and then refused to go to the hospital when the ambulance was on their way, and ran away,” O’Connor told the Globe in a phone interview on Wednesday. “So he couldn’t stay here.”
He said there has not been any confirmation of alleged sexual misconduct at Operation Hunker Down, but acknowledged that there have been fights at the shelter. One resident hit a pastor from a nearby church who was volunteering at the shelter. The police were called, but he said they didn’t arrest her. Another resident punched O’Connor in the face, but O’Connor chose not to press charges and the resident was asked to leave. “He never stayed here,” O’Connor told the Globe.
“Do we call (911) every time there’s some sort of argument and someone throws a plastic cup in the air? No. But when it gets serious, we always call the police,” he said.
“We believe in conflict resolution,” he said. “When things get serious, the police are always brought in. When there’s an overdose, 911 is always called.”
While some people blame Operation Hunker Down for drug use in the neighborhood, O’Connor points out drug use has always been an issue in the Smith Hill area, even before the shelter opened. He wondered why the neighbors complain about drug use now but “were OK with it for years before we opened?”
“There’s some type of perception that we’re hiding things and trying to make money. That’s not true,” said O’Connor. “We’re just trying to help people. ... I don’t hear the same people complaining offering real solutions.”
In addition to DeChambeau’s comments on the fundraising page, other people who claimed be neighborhood residents, offered words of encouragement.
“If our neighbors spent half the time lending a hand or an ear that they do spreading lies, we would be in a much different position,” wrote Nicole LeBouef, apparently in response to DeChambeau’s comment. “From nothing and pennies has blossomed a team that has made a difference, been there for our neighbors in moments of crisis, and continuously work to connect our friends in need with resources.”
“I’m a Smith Hill resident glad to hear that all people have somewhere safe and warm to be in our neighborhood. Thank you,” wrote MJ Robinson.
Denise Cornwall wrote: “How great the lights are on at the Lithuanian Club and folks are warm, dry, safe and fed there.”
The fundraising page showed more than 125 donations totaling $12,734 as of Wednesday evening.
According to the fire board’s statement, O’Connor requested relief from the maximum occupant load, and from a rule that requires the residents to sleep on the first floor instead of the second. O’Connor told the Globe he’s working with the other volunteers to help the soon-to-be displaced residents find other safe shelter. Eight people agreed to go to detox in the last few days, and he hopes it will inspire others to do the same.
Though he was ordered to relocate people by Friday afternoon, O’Connor said he was told it would take “at least a week” before he received a formal decision letter from the fire board. Instructions for “next steps” would be on the back of the letter, he said.
“One thing I’m glad for: There are 16 people that will still have shelter,” said O’Connor. “At least we can keep them off the streets.”