CRANSTON, R.I. — For the last few years, a community of tents has grown in the sparse woods that surround Tongue Pond.
The people who lived there would hang clothes out to dry on lines strung between the trees. Few homeless outreach workers knew they were there, but the ones who did often visited to deliver essentials like food, water, and the opioid-reversal drug Narcan.
The property is in a largely commercial section of Cranston — sandwiched between a Lowe’s, a Texas Roadhouse restaurant, and a charter school. It is owned by a group of companies associated with Joseph R. Paolino Jr., the former mayor of Providence and principal of Paolino Properties.
“I’ve tried to cover my eyes to it. They weren’t hurting anyone,” Paolino told the Globe.
While encampments around the greater Providence area have been dismantled over the last year, this one ballooned from a handful of individuals to 20 or more people. But on Wednesday afternoon, representatives of Paolino Properties handed out notices ordering the people living at the encampment to vacate the property by Friday morning.
The property owners had not previously filed a police report or requested that police serve the encampment with an official no trespass order, according to Cranston Police Chief Michael J. Winquist. The day after the property owners handed out the notices to vacate, they returned with two police officers to distribute packets that included a list of shelters and other resources. Advocates for the homeless noted that the information in them had not been updated in years.
“And then the mad dash really began,” said Laura Jaworski, the executive director of House of Hope, one of the organizations that has previously helped people at the encampment.
That dash includes trying to identify shelters that could take individuals in, or figuring out a makeshift housing solution. Shelters in Rhode Island are consistently at maximum capacity, and unlike neighboring Massachusetts, Rhode Island has no “right-to-shelter” law requiring the state to provide housing for people who qualify. Many who are forced to leave an encampment have no choice but to set up tents somewhere else — or sleep in their cars or in other places not meant for human habitation.
Paolino said he recently started getting reports that people living in the Cranston encampment were lighting campfires at night. The pond is surrounded by a paved, 1-mile loop trail lined with wooden fences and is part of the state’s network of bike paths. A disaster was the last thing Paolino wanted: “What if that fire spreads? What if someone gets hurt?”
“Sure, we’ve received some complaints from tenants and neighbors about the encampment. We’ve recently seen needles on the ground and there are kids on the bike path,” Paolino said. “But it was the fires that were the lynchpin for us.”
Community frustration tends to fester over homeless encampments. But as Rhode Island’s housing crisis continues, with a shortage of affordable units and people getting priced out of the housing market, homeless encampments have been popping up across the state in highly visible and public places — underneath highway bridges, in downtown parking lots, and even in front of the State House in the last year alone.
The state’s approach to clearing encampments of homeless people has been challenged in court. People living in encampments may have stayed there for weeks, months, or even as long as a year before being given days — or in some case, just hours — to vacate their makeshift homes.
“The moral injury of witnessing it is just indescribable,” Jaworski said.
Other states are attempting to figure out a solution to issues of homelessness. In Massachusetts, which has had a “right-to-shelter” law since 1983 that requires officials to immediately house eligible families, Governor Maura Healey recently expanded services, including making available townhouse-style, furnished accommodations with shared green space to families or pregnant women experiencing homelessness. In Burlington, Vt., municipal parking lots are being peppered with pallet shelters — an approach Jaworski has advocated in Rhode Island for at least three years.
Of the 1,810 Rhode Islanders experiencing homelessness during the state’s Point in Time count in January, 334 individuals were unsheltered — a 370 percent increase since 2019. According to the state’s Homeless Management Information System, there were 348 individuals who slept in a place not meant for human habitation — meaning outside or in their cars — in the two weeks ending on June 30.
Ben Lessing, the CEO of the Community Care Alliance, said Rhode Island has not been able to organize a consistent way “to address what is an unfolding humanitarian crisis.”
Instead, some cities have taken matters into their own hands.
On Wednesday, months after a deal with the state fell through, a shelter on wheels will roll into Woonsocket. The “Dignity Bus” was paid for by the Rhode Island Foundation and city of Woonsocket, The Valley Breeze reported. Outfitted by a Florida-based Christian nonprofit, the bus has 20 bunk-bed-like pods, each just large enough for a person to sleep in, and also has toilets, storage compartments, personal lockers, and places for pets to spend the night. Lessing and his staff will oversee and provide services for those who shelter in the bus.
“While providers are particularly concerned about the winter months, consider the past week between heat, poor air quality and then torrential rain,” Lessing said. “If you are a homeless individual with COPD, asthma or diabetes let alone are struggling with an addiction or other behavioral health disorder, none of these environmental conditions are good.”
At the same time, another encampment of more than 20 people on Charles Street in Providence is expected to be dismantled soon.
“We’re in conversations with the City of Providence on how to bring an end to that encampment in a way that serves the people and the city,” Rhode Island Housing Department spokesman Joseph Lindstrom said. “We expect those conversations to wrap up in the next week.”
It’s unclear where those who live in in the encampment might go.
“We’re basically helping folks move their belongings as they scout out a new location,” Jaworski said. Creating a new encampment is not something she “wants to endorse,” but Jaworski and her staff said they’ve been left with little choice.
“If we’re not involved in helping them [move from encampments], we lose contact with people,” Jaworski said. “So, right now, all we can do is help them move on to another spot and keep in touch. It’s a really challenging place to be in.”
Providence College sociology professor Eric Hirsch, who co-chairs the steering committee for the Homeless Management Information System, is helping plan a protest outside the Charles Street encampment on Tuesday to demand that Providence Mayor Brett Smiley “rescind his intended order to raid the Charles Street encampment before the residents have been offered adequate shelter or housing.”
He said advocates want Smiley’s office to immediately identify city-owned buildings or acquire privately owned property to provide at least 100 emergency shelter beds that could eventually be converted to permanent supportive or deeply subsidized housing for extremely low-income households.
Smiley spokesman Josh Estrella said “there is no vacate order in place” for the property at 460 Charles St., which is an area owned by the state. He said conversations are “underway” with providers about case counseling as the city is footing the bill for housing, health, and recovery services.
“This particular encampment has been of grave concern given the proximity to the highway, the fires and the now flooding, that have happened over the last few months,” said Estrella. He noted that Smiley’s 2024 budget includes a new housing resources coordinator position, as well as $263,000 to extend the use of winter shelter beds this summer.
Coalition executive director Caitlin Frumerie said forcing those experiencing homelessness from the sites they’ve called home pushes them “further into the shadows,” and deprives them of their belongings — including medications, wheelchairs, clothes, tents, and other items.
Even property owners are looking to the state to do more.
“People were born to be in a bed, not on the street,” Paolino said. “People say health care is a human right. I think housing is a human right. The state’s leaders clearly need to create more housing.”
This article has been updated.