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HOMELESSNESS

ACLU of Rhode Island calls on McKee to rescind order for homeless individuals to leave State House grounds

Depending on how the state responds, executive director Steven Brown said the ACLU will “consider possible legal action on behalf of people who end up being adversely affected.”

An encampment of homeless individuals at the Rhode Island State House in December 2022.Alexa Gagosz

PROVIDENCE — The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island is demanding that Governor Dan McKee rescind his order to evict the homeless individuals living in tents outside the State House.

McKee had threatened to fine or arrest them if they didn’t move off the property by Friday morning.

In a letter obtained by the Globe and emailed to governor on Thursday night, the ACLU said the procedures the McKee administration has used “are completely inappropriate and appear to be without a legal basis.”

“I am writing to ask that you suspend any such efforts in light of the serious legal and policy concerns raised by such an action on the state’s part,” read the letter from Steven Brown, the ACLU’s executive director. A number of the high-ranking state employees were also sent the letter, including housing secretary Josh Saal.

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Depending on the state’s actions on Friday, Brown said the ACLU will “consider possible legal action on behalf of people who end up being adversely affected.”

McKee spokesman Matthew Sheaff confirmed that the administration has received the letter. The administration did not immediately provide a comment on the matter.

On Wednesday morning, members of McKee’s staff began distributing notices to the more than 30 tents outside the State House, ordering many unhoused individuals to leave the State House’s grounds within 48 hours with a deadline of 9 a.m. on Friday. Many of the those sleeping in the tents have been outside the State House for up to three months.

A group of unhoused individuals and their advocates rallied outside Governor Dan McKee's office on Nov. 21, 2022, calling on him to fund additional shelter beds in Rhode Island.Alexa Gagosz/Globe Staff

Those who do not leave the State House by Friday at 9 a.m. could face fines or arrest, according to the notice, which cited a trespassing law. Some housing advocates said they believed the governor’s order was a violation of the Homeless Bill of Rights.

“State House grounds are open to the public,” read Brown’s letter, which outlined how the state does not have any formal rules or regulations that would allow the notices to vacate the State House grounds.

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Brown also outlined how the administration was violating federal requirements governing the Coordinated Entry System (CES), which is a call system that manages the shelter waiting list and is operated by the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness.

In the governor’s Dec. 7 notice, it claimed each person in the tents would be provided with a bed in an emergency shelter and transportation from the State House. But that offer might not be fulfilled immediately, according to Caitlin Frumerie, the executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness. Frumerie said the state is looking to identify temporary shelter for those at the encampment who are at the top of the shelter priority list.

“But we can’t just skip everyone else already in line,” Frumerie told a Globe reporter, explaining that the state might be looking for shelter spaces outside of the Coordinated Entry System, which has a contract with the state. It’s unclear, she said, where those units may be since shelter beds have long been at capacity.

CES was designed to “ensure that there is fair and equal access to shelter for those experiencing a housing crisis,” Brown said in an email to the Globe. “There [are] simply are not a sufficient number of beds available for every person there, nor would shelters be able to take some of those individuals with disabilities that they cannot accommodate.”

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“In light of all the serious questions raised by the State’s misleading notice, the questionable process being implemented to remove individuals, the unavailability of promised shelter space, the lack of any formal regulations prohibiting the campers’ presence, and the State’s non-compliance with essential CES standards, we ask that the 48-hour vacate notice issued yesterday be rescinded, and that no further action be taken against those peacefully camping at the State House until these various issues can be examined and addressed in conformance with due process and federal and state law,” Brown wrote to the governor. “We trust that, under all these circumstances, the State is not so callous as to take the rushed action it has threatened when there is no urgency whatsoever in doing so.”

The news comes hours after Richard Corley, a criminal defense attorney of Corley & Associates who previously served on the Warwick City Council, filed a restraining order on Thursday afternoon in Superior Court in an attempt to block the state from forcing the homeless individuals off of the State House property or face fines or arrest.

Corley, on a call with the Globe Thursday night, argued it was the individuals’ First Amendment rights to remain on the State House’s grounds.

“A group of homeless individuals have been encamped on the grounds of the Rhode Island State House engaged in a protest to increase the amount of support, both fiscal and otherwise, the state invests in them,” wrote Corley’s complaint. “Their physical presence on the grounds of the State House is their method to express their First Amendment Rights guaranteeing Freedom of Speech.”

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Corley also said it is unclear if everyone received the notice, which he called “last minute” and the deadline “unreasonable.”

“The hasty and faulty method being proposed by Governor Daniel McKee is creating a dangerous environment for not only those at the encampment, but those who live in the surrounding area,” the complaint said. The plaintiff, Corley said, will remain anonymous to protect his privacy.

Nearly 30 tents were still stationed outside the State House on Wednesday afternoon. Some of those living outside told the Globe they didn’t plan on leaving.


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