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RI HOMELESSNESS

R.I. advocates push for ‘sanctioned’ homeless encampments

“We have not successfully found facilities to put more shelter beds online ... So we need to think outside of the box,” said Jennifer Barrera of the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness

Two Providence police officers enter the homeless encampment on Charles Street in Providence on Aug. 7, 2023.Alexa Gagosz

PROVIDENCE — More than a dozen homeless individuals were packing up what was left of their belongings at a long-standing encampment Monday as two Providence police officers paced back and forth nearby. Residents of the encampment on Charles Street in Providence, which had existed behind the Da Vinci Center for several years and recently ballooned to more than 40 people, were told in eviction notices on Friday that the area would need to be completely cleared by the end of the day on Monday, and those living there would need to vacate the vicinity.

When homeless encampments have been dismantled previously at the hands of city officials and property owners, those staying in them were often offered alternative places to stay like shelters or motel rooms. But according to outreach workers, Rhode Island continues to face a severe shortage of shelter beds for people who are homeless. In many cases this summer, habitants of homeless encampments are having to pick up their belongings and find a new place to pitch their tent.

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As a solution, advocates for the homeless on Monday called on state and city leaders to create a government “sanctioned” encampment, a specific location where unhoused individuals could live in tents and outside without the threat of law enforcement or property owners telling them to leave.

“In less than one month, we have had to issue another statement decrying actions taken to further destabilize, traumatize, and displace Rhode Islanders who have no other place to go,” said Caitlin Frumerie, the executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness. “The Rhode Islanders living in these camps are treated as a nuisance that needs to be swept away, rather than as human beings who are going through hard times and have no place to call home.”

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A sanctioned encampment, according to Juan Espinoza, the Coalition’s development manager, often has various services on site, including case management, portable toilets, mobile showers, and other essentials.

The idea around a sanctioned encampment stems from Hawaii, said Jennifer Barrera, the Coalition’s chief strategy officer. Cities like Honolulu — which was spending approximately $15,000 per week, or $750,000 annually — were conducting sweeps of people living in homeless encampments. In many cases, those living in encampments did not have anywhere else to go, and would move around the corner or return to the site the following day. In 2018, officials in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, helped set up a public park (which Hope Services Hawaii said cost $2,000 to set up) to legally allow homeless individuals to pitch a tent while offering a “hub of services.” Annual costs to operate sanctioned encampments in Hawaii were not readily available. Sanctioned “camps” for the homeless have recently opened in Portland, Oregon and Anchorage, Alaska, and are being debated in Sacramento, California.

“Sanctioned encampments are a way that a lot of communities are addressing the growing numbers of unsheltered people,” said Barrera in an interview Monday in front of the Charles Street encampment. In Rhode Island, “we have not successfully found facilities to put more shelter beds online. We have not found the right combination of providers. So we need to think outside of the box.”

Another solution, Espinoza said, could be rapidly deployable shelters, such as pallet shelters, tiny prefabricated homes that can be erected in half an hour. The shelters could be erected in groups, with heat, electricity, and access to showers and restrooms. Other cities have attempted similar solutions, such as in Burlington, Vt., where municipal parking lots are being peppered with pallet shelters — an approach House of Hope executive director Laura Jaworski has called for in Rhode Island for at least three years.

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Both solutions would be temporary, said Espinoza, “but we need somewhere to put these folks. Not just keep moving them around.” When they are relocated, they often lose contact with outreach workers who help provide food, water, first aid supplies, and the opioid-reversal drug Narcan.

Forcing people to move around “is just re-traumatizing them,” said Espinoza.

A former homeless encampment on Fuller Street in Providence in 2021.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

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, public parks, 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.

The encampment on Charles Street had been there “for about three or four years,” according to outreach worker Earl Engram, who works for Amos House. He said tents had been “more hidden in the woods” previously, until other nearby encampments were dismantled and the shelter at the Cranston Street Armory closed in May.

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Eric Hirsch, the co-chair of the state’s Homeless Management Information System Steering Committee, said leaders have “done little to nothing” to provide additional shelter beds in Providence. While standing in front of a crew of TV cameras and reporters Monday, Hirsch demanded Mayor Brett Smiley “stop the raids, stop pushing people around from place to place.”

“Start helping them better survive outside now, until humane shelter and real housing is available to them,” said Hirsch, who is also an urban sociology professor at Providence College.

Joseph Lindstrom, a spokesman for the Rhode Island Department of Housing, said sanctioned encampments “can be complicated,” but that the department is “always open to discussing a variety of potential strategies.”

The department, led by Housing Secretary Stefan I. Pryor, has “explored” the possibility on a preliminary basis, said Lindstrom. But it has not yet reached a conclusion.

“It is worth noting that for a safe encampment operation to work, a location is not enough,” wrote Lindstrom in an email to the Globe. “It would require municipal and service provider partnerships to ensure access to social services, health and mental health care, substance use treatment, sanitation, security, etc.”

Josh Estrella, a spokesman for Mayor Smiley, said the city has been working with the state to pursue non-city owned land that may provide for the possibility of pallet or pallet-like housing in Providence.

More than 600 unsheltered Rhode Islanders are awaiting shelter, according to the state’s Homeless Management Information System.

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City Councilor Justin Roias, of Ward 4, said Monday that he’d urged the city to consider allowing the encampment to stay on Charles Street for another month, “to allow housing providers and outreach workers more time to help residents secure sustainable housing.” But instead, he said he grew frustrated by the “slow progress” when attempting to “unite city and state officials.”

“Relocating individuals from one area without establishing a sustainable support plan has led to them resettling elsewhere in the city, failing to address the root problem,” he said.



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