Advocates call on Providence Mayor Smiley to take action on homelessness

Providence Mayor Brett Smiley has been slow to deal with the crisis of homelessness in the City, and has not committed to serious efforts to help those in need, say protesters.

Rhode Island News: Advocates call on Providence Mayor Smiley to take action on homelessness

May 6, 2023, 10:34 am

By Steve Ahlquist

Protesters gathered at Providence City Hall on Friday to demand that Providence Mayor Brett Smiley act decisively to provide additional shelter beds to those already living outside as well as those who will be displaced when the Cranston Street Armory stops operation as a warming center on May 15th. The protesters also demanded that those in tent encampments, and those who will soon be forced into such encampments, do not have their tents “cleared” by Providence Police and city officials, despite having nowhere else to go.

The protest was made up of advocates and allies from the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project (RIHAP), Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE), Gather Together United as 1 (GTUA1), the Rhode Island Poor People’s Campaign, Better Lives Rhode Island (BLRI), Mathewson Church Housing Justice Committee, and Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE).

“I have one word to begin with,” said Terri Wright of DARE, speaking from the steps of City Hall. “Neglect. This is exactly what neglect looks like. Our city and state officials are responsible for its residents wellbeing. But instead, we are met with neglect…

“Ensuring that everyone has a safe, decent, affordable place to live should be a top priority in our state. Where are the hand washing stations and Porta Potties, and other essential items to make sure that the unsheltered have what they need?”

According to the state’s Homeless Management Information System, there were 305 individuals forced to spend at least one night in a place not meant for human habitation as of the end of April. Many of the 150+ people currently spending each night at the Armory may be added to this number on May 15. Over 750 individuals have spent at least one night at the Armory since it opened as a warming center, which was planned to house only 50 at a time people over the winter months.

“We’re here because we want the City to step up and do what they need to do to end this crisis,” said Professor Eric Hirsch of Providence College, who Co-Chairs the state’s Homeless Management Information System Steering Committee. “We absolutely refuse to accept the idea that we are going to have hundreds of people living outside year round in Rhode Island. That’s not acceptable, and we will do whatever we have to do to make sure that this does not continue.”

Unhoused at Providence City Hall

Professor Hirsch pushed back against what those attending the protest see as NIMBYism, a “Not In My BackYard” position based on a series of negative stereotypes people have about who is experiencing homelessness. “We need to start saying, ‘Yes in my backyard,'” said Professor Hirsch.

“In fact, it is our neighbors, friends, and family members who have no place to call home,” said the protesters in a press release. “Often, the focus is on ‘clearing the trash’ that people with no home leave at encampment sites rather than on the fact that our community is unable or unwilling to provide decent housing to all residents of the state.”

A Yes in My Backyard movement, said advocates, means that everyone, including individual residents, local, state, and federal government agencies, non-profits, churches, and private corporations must be part of the solution to end unsheltered and long-term homelessness in Rhode Island.

Emily Crowell

Professor Hirsch and other advocates had a private meeting with Mayor Smiley on April 21 and presented him with three demands:

  1. Immediately provide to representatives of our community organizations the list of city owned buildings, or other buildings that could be acquired by the city, that are suitable for conversion to provide at least 150 emergency shelter beds. The city must also hire service providers to operate the new shelters. These buildings should later be converted to permanent supportive and deeply subsidized housing.
  2. Identify sites for, purchase, and have shipped to Providence enough Pallet Shelters (or the equivalent) to shelter 100 individuals in at least two separate shelter villages. Provide electricity, bathrooms, showers, and meal sites for residents.
  3. Instruct the Providence Police to hold harmless and not arrest, ticket, or harass those encamped on Providence City property, given that these households have nowhere else to go. Provide and service trash receptacles and Porta Potties if requested by those living in tent encampments in the city.

In an email linked here, Mayor Smiley responded to some of the demands. The administration maintains that there are no properties owned by the City, currently not in use, suitable to house people experiencing homelessness. At the protest on Friday Mayor Smiley’s Chief of Staff Emily Crowell clarified that there are only two such properties owned by the City, and neither is suitable. Chief of Staff Crowell told professor Hirsch that she would provide the addresses of these locations to the advocates so they could determine the suitability of the locations for themselves. [You can watch the exchange between protesters and Chief of Staff Crowell here.]

As for identifying a location in the City where pallet shelters could be utilized, Crowell reiterated that the city is “working” on a possible solution. One issue, she said, is lack of electricity and water in empty lots. Professor Hirsch countered that were people outside or homeless due to a natural disaster, they would all be housed immediately. The crisis of homelessness is simply happening to people the City doesn’t care about, so state and city officials are slow to offer solutions, maintained those participating in the protest.

On the last demand, that Mayor Smiley instruct Providence Police “to hold harmless and not arrest, ticket, or harass those encamped on Providence City property” and to provide “service trash receptacles and Porta Potty if requested by those living in tent encampments,” was not addressed in the letter and note addressed in person by Chief of Staff Crowell in any substantive way.

Professor Hirsch told Uprise RI that future actions were being planned.

Joseph P. Buchanan
Terri Wright
Eric Hirsch

Here’s a direct link to the speakers:

00:00:00 Terri Wright of Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE) 00:07:11 Professor Eric Hirsch of Providence College, Co-Chair of the state’s Homeless Management Information System Steering Committee 00:12:20 Alexandria of Gather Together United as 1 (GTUA1) 00:14:08 Diamond, formerly homeless and a homeless advocate 00:26:35 Diana with Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE) 00:29:08 Jared Lavey, currently experiencing homelessness 00:39:51 Joseph P. Buchanan, member of Gather Together United as 1 (GTUA1) and founder of the Black PAC, which endorsed Brett Smiley for Mayor, after he committed to building low-income housing. 00:44:45 Meeting with Brett Smiley’s Chief of Staff Emily Crowell