When her East Side homeless encampment was bulldozed, Molly lost everything
“I had an eight person tent there and everything I owned was in that tent,” said Molly. “Like all my clothes, all my kids’ pictures, just crazy amounts things like I can’t replace… Like if you had things in your attic or in your basement that you keep in your own your home or in your apartment… Things that you’ve had from childhood, or little trinkets or whatever it may be. Things your Grandmother gave you or something that you can’t always put in your car and carry with you.”
Just off the bike path behind the Salvation Army on Pitman Street on the East Side of Providence there was a homeless encampment not far from the water, near the train tracks. The site is also not too far from a nearby elder care facility. There, until recently and mostly hidden behind trees and brush, was a small community of unhoused people living in tents. The police visited the site and in conversation with those living there, told them that they were not going to be evicted anytime soon and that they were safe to stay there.
Days later on June 21st the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (DOT) bulldozed the site, destroying the homes and property of the half dozen or more people living there. Uprise RI is in possession of an email from Lindsey Sass, DOT Programming Manager, to Joseph Bucci, State Highway Maintenance Operations Engineer at DOT, stating that Providence City Council member John Goncalves, (Ward 1) asked DOT to “go out to the site as soon as possible to start clearing and cleaning the area.” His concern, said Sass in the email, “is that if the area is not cleaned up in a timely manner, this issue might reoccur.”
On the day of the bulldozing Providence Police Officers told those at the site that they had one hour to collect their stuff and leave before plowing commenced.
Uprise RI tracked down Molly, [named changed for fear of retaliation] a woman who had been living at the site with her boyfriend. After being assured that she and her belongings were reasonably safe at the campsite by the Providence Police Department, Molly went about her day, only to return later to find that everything she wasn’t carrying with her – everything she owned – had been destroyed.
Uprise RI: Can you tell me about the bulldozing at the encampment and what happened?
Molly: We don’t know if the nursing home paid a private company or if it was the community, or what it was. I know there’s been issues with addicts and other homeless people living on the shoreline near the nursing home. But there’s also a trail further down from the nursing home where there’s train tracks and stuff where other homeless people live. I mean, I can’t account for everybody being sober and stuff, but I know it’s nowhere like it was near the shoreline. I feel like they had every right to want all that trash cleaned up. I don’t blame them. A lot of people go squirreling at Salvation Army, meaning they go to the [trash] bins and take stuff.
And sure they’re high on meth or whatever and they’re taking ridiculous amounts of junk because they’re just looking for crap. They don’t even know what they’re looking for. But there’s other homeless people that aren’t trying to live like that. They’re just trying to make it through out here. And those people aren’t necessarily in that mix. We know each other. We’ll pass by. We might stop, “Hey, how you doing? How are you still alive?” But that doesn’t mean we are the same. Whoever hired this bulldozing company, they took it upon themselves.
Uprise RI: As far as I can tell, it was the Department of Transportation that bulldozed the camp and they did this with the permission and full knowledge of the Providence Police Department and the local City Councilor.
Molly: I know that there’s a lot of elderly people in that nursing home that are very vocal and go to these council meetings. I heard a guy that was sitting on the council paid for this place to get cleaned up and then people came and trashed it again. I get all that. But I also had a conversation with someone from the elderly home and I know for a fact that they were speaking about getting rid of all the homeless out there – which I understand – but there are ways to go about it and you don’t just take away everybody’s life.
Uprise RI: Can you tell me about that? You had your stuff there.
Molly: I had an eight person tent there and everything I owned was in that tent: all my clothes, all my kids’ pictures, just crazy amounts things like I can’t replace… Like if you had things in your attic or in your basement that you keep in your own your home or in your apartment… Things that you’ve had from childhood, or little trinkets or whatever it may be. Things your Grandmother gave you or something that you can’t always put in your car and carry with you. You’re just trying to make it the best you can out there and one day they come and everything that meant something to you was just taken and gone. There was just a flat land. It looked like a bulldozer came in and just scooped everything up and just left tree trunks and grass. Everything gone…
Uprise RI: So what happened on that day? You had been assured by police officers earlier that nothing would happen.
Molly: I was assured by police officers three to five days earlier that we were okay. They asked us to just clean up the trash a little bit. “You guys are fine,” they said.
Uprise RI: And then three to five days later, bulldozers came through while you were not there.
Molly: I left my house at 10:30 in the morning. I go to the methadone clinic. I came back around four.
Uprise RI: And everything was gone.
Molly: The guy that lived further down for me got a 10 minute warning. He was told to grab what he could and get out.
Uprise RI: Who told him to leave?
Molly: They were the police. “You can get out. We’re bulldozing.” He had 10 minutes to get everything he could in a backpack and what he could carry on a bike and screw. The rest of his life just got taken.
Uprise RI: How many people were affected by this?
Molly: Probably a good five to six people.
Uprise RI: Five to six people were living there and they basically had their lives destroyed…
Molly: It’s not like we were in anybody’s backyard. I’m not defending or agreeing with what the police or the elderly home or the council – whoever was involved in this situation. But we had a little campsite hidden behind trees. Where else are we going to go? I don’t know.
Uprise RI: Last night you had your car window smashed. How did that happen?
Molly: I don’t know. I heard it. I went outside our tent and went by where my car was. I don’t have an issue or anything with anybody.
Uprise RI: You think it was just a random?
Molly: Could have been, there’s been a lot of break-ins on the news and stuff. I’m not putting that on anybody. That’s just Providence and the risk you take in the world. You park where it’s legal to park and you never know how it happens, especially out here.
Uprise RI: Do you want to talk at all about your life?
Molly: I wake up every morning. I go to the methadone clinic. Then I go eat at McAuley House or Amos House Monday through Friday, except on the first of the month, which is agreeable, because within that week you have food stamps. Most people are getting food stamps out here if you’re homeless. From there I go to a park like this and I’ll read a book with my husband or we’ll go watch videos on YouTube somewhere where we get internet access.
You don’t really have money to be out there partying. We don’t really have friends because out here you can’t trust anybody. You can’t friend out here. A lot of the people out here are in active addiction. I mean, how do you not want to use drugs when you’re out here, literally sleeping in the grass and everything you have is in a tent or a backpack? Some people don’t even have that.
What we do have is the clothes on our backs. We lost everything. Certain little things my husband has given me along the years, little things. I try to keep most of my valuable stuff on me. The price might not be a lot, but the value is in what it meant to you. You can’t replace those things, whether it be a birthday card for when you were like nine years old or a mother’s day card or whatever it might be. It just sucks. Your home, your bicycles, your clothes or anything you have just – gone. A lot of people lost a lot of stuff. It just sucks for the whole homeless community. And at the same time we’ve got people out here that make it harder for the homeless community.
Uprise RI: Who are the people making it harder?
Molly: Some are homeless themselves, but it’s the community too. I think they need to just come up with a situation for those that need help with housing.
Uprise RI: Who helps you out here?
Molly: There’s a lot of places. McAuley House and Amos House. House of Hope. Matthewson Street Church is a blessing. But they don’t have enough manpower and there’s not enough housing. There’s not enough necessities out here…
Uprise RI: You’re on a list waiting for for housing. How long do you think it’s going to take to get you into a stable situation?
Molly: I don’t know.
Uprise RI: No idea?
Molly: We’ve been on a list for three years, so…
Uprise RI: Three years you’ve been on a list for housing?
Molly: Yeah. It’s pretty hard. What do you do?
Uprise RI: Are you getting medical attention when you need it?
Molly: There’s organizations out here. I have health coverage, so I don’t need to worry about that. But I’m a big baby. I don’t like doctors. My boyfriend tells me to go.
Uprise RI: My wife does the same for me.
Molly: I personally try to have as much normalcy in my life as possible. And there’s a lot of people out here that don’t even have what I had in my campsite because it’s so hard to live. The city needs to help people more. They have this money to do housing communities and stuff, but they’re not. It’s a little overwhelming. Out on the street they are passing out free needles, free syringes, free crack pipes, whatever it is, but then you have these organizations that are saying, “You can’t come through the door because you are under the influence.” Which I understand, but if I have alcohol on my breath, maybe I just went out to the dinner and had a beer. I’m not stumbling and drunk and needing medical attention. Do you see what I’m saying?
Uprise RI: I get that.
Molly: And then there’s not enough room. A lot of the time people are on mats. It’s sad. You’ve got these houses getting knocked down the South Side and getting rebuilt and it’s like, okay, you could have knocked those down and put up more community housings for the homeless or the people that are living off social security insurance.
My boyfriend is trying to find a job. He’s a carpenter. I don’t have much of an education so I’m looking for a low grade job. I’m looking at McDonald’s. It’s minimum wage for me. It’s hard. I made mistakes. I did it to myself, but it is what it is. I don’t have a place to live so I don’t have a job and I don’t have a job because I don’t have a place to live. Like, what do you do? How do you go to work every day when you can’t shower every day?
Uprise RI: What do you need most, if you could have anything?
Molly: Just a bed and a shower. Let me get a shower and let me have a bed to sleep in. Today, hopefully, I’ll go see a room for rent, but I don’t know ifI’ll get it.
Uprise RI: I won’t keep you then. Is there anything else I should have asked or anything else you want to say?
Molly: I think the community in general is making it hard on homeless people and things need to happen for people that that are just trying to get through life. That’s all.
Uprise RI: Thank you so much for your time. Please take care of yourself.
Uprise RI spoke to Providence City Councilmember John Goncalves (Ward 1) about the bulldozing of the campsite.
Councilmemeber John Goncalves: There’s a lot of information that I was unaware of. Over the last year we’ve done over a dozen clean-ups… It’s not uncommon for us to go down and try to clean up along the Seeking River.
So what we were hearing, especially rom some of the senior abutters who live down there, they had expressed concerns about the litter and accumulated debris.
So, we wanted RIDOT to go down and clean up any debris, but I was not under the impression, and this was not information that was provided to me per se, that there were actually people actively down there. I was under the impression that there was stuff that had accumulated.
I was under the impression that the police were trying to get those people the services they needed. I was told th police were working with Crossroads, Amos House, House of Hope and outreach workers to get them shelter and the services they need.
Uprise RI: I tracked down a woman who lost everything when DOT bulldozed her belongings. Her children’s pictures, momentos from her life, everything she couldn’t carry.
Goncalves: That’s terrible. As far as how [the police and DOT] approach these things, I’m not aware of the fine details. Apparently they just throw all these things in the dumpster?
Uprise RI: Yeah.
Goncalves: That’s just horrible. So RIDOT has no procedures or protocols in place to preserve these items?
Uprise RI: I think RIDOT sees it all as trash.
Goncalves: This is a structural deficit. There’s no one who goes in and figures out – and it’s hard to figure out what is valuable and what is not – but no one goes in and does that work?
Uprise RI: No. Think about the email I have. This is the Providence Police, the City Council, DOT, whoever the DOT contracted with to do this work, at least four different actors, all pointing at someone else to assign blame…
Goncalves: I can assure you it’s not the City Council. What we have instructed the police to do is to make sure that people have the services they need and that all of it is done humanely.
Uprise RI: That almost never happens. You can’t evict someone from their home humanely.
Goncalves: We need to figure out how to get people to do this in the right way. Because clearly if this keeps happening, over and over again…
UpriseRI: All the time…
Goncalves: There doesn’t see to be a concerted effort, or a humane one, to mitigate these challenges.