PROVIDENCE — On Friday, a Superior Court judge temporarily blocked the McKee administration’s order that homeless people camping in tents at the State House must leave.
Judge David Cruise issued a temporary restraining order, which prevents the state from clearing the tent encampment until Wednesday. Richard Corley, an attorney who used to serve on the Warwick City Council, filed a temporary restraining order on Thursday night on behalf of people sleeping outside.
Robert Oliveira, a private citizen who had advocated for those in the tents to Corley, told the Globe there are about 47 plaintiffs, all of whom he said were sleeping outside the State House on Friday morning.
Corley, who argued that the homeless people at the State House are exercising their First Amendment rights, told reporters outside Superior Court in Providence Friday that families with children are among those camped at the State House. He said he planned to contact Josh Saal, the state’s housing secretary, along with other resources to try to find the members of the encampment adequate shelter.
When asked whether the state had the authority to demand that the Rhode Islanders in the encampment must leave the State House, which is public property, Corley said, “That is somewhat of an open question.”
“The State House is owned by the state. The people it represents are the citizens of Rhode Island. My clients are citizens of Rhode Island. So there is an argument that these citizens are owners of the grounds of the State House,” Corley said.
The interior and exterior grounds of the State House are used every day for events outside of legislative practices, noted Corley. “My clients are using the sides of the entrance with tents and are peacefully protesting with signs concerning the lack of housing in Rhode Island.”
Governor Dan McKee’s office released a statement after the the judge issued a temporary restraining order through his spokesman Matt Sheaff, which said the state’s priority from the beginning has been helping those camping at the State House and get them into a warm shelter.
“Over the past several days, we have been able to provide safe shelter for many of these individuals and couples,” said Sheaff in the statement to the Globe. “Based on significant outreach done at various times during the day over the last 48 hours, we estimate that of the approximately 17 adults outside the State House as of Wednesday morning, less than 10 remain. We will continue to work to connect them with safe shelter.”
Corley said he believes he and the state can try to resolve this before the temporary restraining order ends on Wednesday. “Whether we have to have a contested hearing remains to be seen,” said Corley.
People camping outside the State House were notified Wednesday by members of McKee’s staff that they would have to leave within 48 hours — by 9 a.m. on Friday — or face fines or arrest.
By the Friday morning deadline, people and their tents remained outside the State House. And protesters began to gather inside the State House, holding signs and singing “We Shall Overcome.”
In a letter to McKee administration on Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island demanded McKee rescind the eviction order. Executive Director Steven Brown said the ACLU would “consider possible legal action on behalf of people who end up being adversely affected.”
Brown told the Globe on Friday that the ACLU had not yet received a response from the governor’s office and that the ACLU was “discussing options” for potential next steps. A McKee spokesperson also did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the ACLU’s letter. But a state employee close to the governor said McKee has read the letter.
Through spokesman Chris Raia, Saal issued a statement to the Globe, confirming that he received and is aware of the letter from the ACLU.
“Right now, the focus of my office is to work with our provider partners across the state to help connect unhoused individuals with available shelter,” said Saal.
In its letter, the ACLU wrote that the grounds of the State House were open to the public, and accused the McKee administration of 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, the state claimed each person camped at the State House would be provided with a bed in an emergency shelter and transportation. But that offer might not be fulfilled immediately, according to Caitlin Frumerie, the executive director of the coalition.
“We can’t just skip everyone else already in line,” Frumerie told a the Globe, explaining that the state might be looking for shelter spaces outside of the Coordinated Entry System. It’s unclear, she said earlier this week, where those units may be since shelter beds have long been at capacity.
Saal said those who are sleeping outside the State House are considered by the system to be “Category 1″ homeless, which is the system’s highest priority for accessing a shelter bed.
However, other homeless individuals throughout the state are also Category 1 homeless, yet have not been able to access shelter due to capacity issues.
“We’re working every day to identify available beds in our system and take immediate action to ensure they are utilized by Rhode Islanders who need them most and not left unfilled,” said Saal in his statement.
This is happening as @GovDanMcKee’s office has not yet responded to the ACLU’s letter or my questions related to the 9 am deadline.@BostonGlobe @Globe_RI https://t.co/OB3DQb54O7— Alexa Gagosz (@AlexaGagosz) December 9, 2022
It’s past 9 am. Deadline.— Alexa Gagosz (@AlexaGagosz) December 9, 2022
People in tents are still outside the State House, defying @GovDanMcKee’s orders to vacate the grounds by 9 today.
Protestors are singing the words “We shall overcome” while sitting inside the State House. @Globe_RI pic.twitter.com/nbk45CULXf
This story has been updated with comments from Attorney Richard Corley.
Alexa Gagosz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.