Exclusive: Uprise RI interviews those unlawfully evicted from Woonsocket homeless encampment

On Thursday morning we spoke to three people who lived in the encampment until last Wednesday, Jeremy, Pamela, and Ray. Jeremy was terse and guarded, and we spoke to him first. Pamela and Ray, a couple, spoke to us together. Pamela was effusive, Ray more reserved, but their stories, taken together, paint a very different picture of events than that offered by Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt and Deputy Chief Thomas Calouro on a radio program broadcast Wednesday morning.

Rhode Island News: Exclusive: Uprise RI interviews those unlawfully evicted from Woonsocket homeless encampment

January 13, 2023, 9:32 am

By Steve Ahlquist

On January 4 the City of Woonsocket evicted and bulldozed a homeless encampment near the Truman bypass and by the bike path behind a KFC. Ten people, given 30 minutes to gather their stuff by the Woonsocket Police Department, had their personal property ransacked and destroyed. Six people moved on, finding shelter outside or in other encampments in the city. Four found shelter with the Community Care Alliance (CCA).

On Thursday morning Uprise RI spoke to three people who lived in the encampment until last Wednesday, Jeremy, Pamela, and Ray. Jeremy was terse and guarded, and we spoke to him first. Pamela and Ray, a couple, spoke to us together. Pamela was effusive, Ray more reserved, but their stories, taken together, paint a very different picture of events than that offered by Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt and Deputy Chief Thomas Calouro on a radio program broadcast Wednesday morning.

Readers should also check out Uprise RI’s coverage of Monday night’s Woonsocket City Council meeting where advocates spoke out against the City’s actions. In many ways this piece presents the last perspective: We’ve heard from advocates, we’ve heard from the Administration, now we’ll hear from the affected people themselves.

Our first discussion was with Jeremy:

Uprise RI: Can you tell me what the camp was like when you were there?

Jeremy: There were a few tents. Nine to 10 people was the most we had there. But everybody had their lives, so they’d come and go.

Uprise RI: How long were you there?

Jeremy: About four months.

Uprise RI: You were there the morning the City came in and got rid of all the stuff. What was that like? How’d that go?

Jeremy: They came at about seven in the morning. Said we had a half hour to get our stuff and get out.

Uprise RI: Had you been approached by anybody before this about the camp being evicted?

Jeremy: Yeah, about a week before they told us that they were doing it the day before, but the weather was bad. So I guess they postponed.

Uprise RI: How do you feel you were treated by the police and by the Department of Public Works?

Jeremy: Disrespected.

Uprise RI: In what way?

Jeremy: Because we have a right to live. And they never had a problem before. People were living there for months, then, all of a sudden, the weather gets cold. They say that they don’t want anything to happen to anybody, so they’re going to tear it down.

Uprise RI: What did they offer you as far as shelter?

Jeremy: A ride to the the Cranston Street Armory. And that was it. But there weren’t any beds there.

Uprise RI: Do you remember who you talked to? Was it police or was it people from the DP?

Jeremy: The police.

Uprise RI: Were you able to get all your stuff out of there?

Jeremy: No I wasn’t. I lost most of my clothes. That was mainly it.

Uprise RI: Do you have a job right now?

Jeremy: Now? No. I work construction, I’m between jobs.

Uprise RI: Why didn’t you take that ride to the Cranston Street Armory?

Jeremy: Because I knew there were no beds. I already called there.

Uprise RI: And do you think being in Providence would’ve been far away from the kind of services that you get here? Is that an issue?

Jeremy: Yeah, Providence is a lot bigger. If you don’t have a job, you don’t have money, you don’t have the transportation. You’re stuck up there. I’m pretty much stuck out here too, though.

Uprise RI: So you would go to work and then at night you’d go to the encampment, go to your tent.

Jeremy: Yeah.

Uprise RI: Over the months you were there, did you ever have any interactions with the police that didn’t go well?

Jeremy: No, for the most part. They came every morning for a few days straight the week prior to the eviction. They kept coming in, running everybody’s names for warrants.

Uprise RI: Did they arrest anybody?

Jeremy: No.

Uprise RI: One of the things the Deputy Police Chief said at a recent city council meeting was that the encampment was a transient community, that there were never the same people there twice. Was that your experience?

Jeremy: No. Everybody had their tent. They stayed there, but they had company too, so…

Uprise RI: What are your feelings about the way the eviction was handled? Can you talk about that?

Jeremy: Yeah. I talked to a few people and it was illegal.

Uprise RI: In what way?

Jeremy: Because they basically ruined our stuff. They kicked us out. They disrespected our rights as a person to be there.

Uprise RI: The Mayor and the police are saying that the camp was unsafe, that it was dirty. The mayor said you couldn’t walk by there without almost stepping on a needle. Is that your experience?

Jeremy: No.

Uprise RI: Do you think it was relatively clean and safe there?

Jeremy: Yeah.

Our conversation with Pamela and Ray:

Uprise RI: Can you tell me how long you were at this encampment?

Pamela: We we were previously at the beach a little further down actually. We started in July of last year and they played the same game. After two months there were about five or six tents and we were comfortable, everything was fine. Then they said they needed to clear the beach because there was too much debris. And so we had to take our things and move them. They gave us a few days, same thing, pretty much. So we got our things and we moved to the current place near KFC. That was probably September.

Uprise RI: What was it like at that camp, before it was destroyed?

Pamela: At first it wasn’t too bad. It was still warm out. You know, light jacket type of weather. The usual New England, you’re either hot or cold, but we weren’t freezing. It really wasn’t that bad. We were fortunate. We had a three bedroom tent. I made a joke saying Ray built my house in less than two hours. For the next house I’d like a nice patio out front. But I got the waterfront. That meant the world, you know? So we made it work. Ray actually creates his own electricity. We were one of the only tents with our own electricity. We had a box fan going at night. Ee had a projector. We were watching movies and everything.

Nights obviously started getting cold. My husband died a few years ago of alcoholism. I’ve owned a home since I was 20. So for 20 years I’ve never had to experience anything in a tent, anything outside of a camper. Fortunately Ray being an Eagle Scout and all that, he knew what he was doing, thank God. Because I have no idea how I would’ve been able to live like that. As it got colder it got scary. I’m not going to lie. It was very scary.

Uprise RI: Some of those nights got very cold between September and last week.

Pamela: We used those emergency blankets, the Mylar or whatever, the real thin emergency blankets. Ray said, “Let’s line the inside of the tent and then wrapped the outside with Saran wrap.” Then he used Flex Seal spray on the outside. We had the warmest tent in the winter and the coolest tent in the summer.

Uprise RI: It pays to be an Eagle Scout…

Pamela: The day before we were evicted, it rained really bad. It was almost going to snow. We were told we had to be gone by Tuesday, but they never showed up. It was muddy. It was awful. I was thinking to myself, “It rained all day. How the hell are we going to move all of our stuff? And there’s no way they can come tomorrow.. It’s going to be horrible.”

Two police officers showed up at 7:30am. I was going to head over to the clinic and get my medication. And they said, “Oh, Miss Pamela, what are you doing here?” And I said, “I was about to head out and he go get my medicine. ‘Why? What’s going on? You guys were supposed to be outta here yesterday. Looks like you guys got an extra day,'” they said, “So like we told you the other day, we’re here and we’re going to take care of it today.” I said, “Actually, you were supposed to be here yesterday at nine, so what’s going on?” He said, “Well, as of eight o’clock today, everything here is going in the dump. So take what you can. Because you got 27 minutes to get what you need because at eight o’clock it’s all going in that dumpster and none of you will be allowed to come and retrieve any more of your items.

I said, “Listen, is it okay if we take all of our stuff and put it off the property onto the bike path?” They were nice enough to let us put our belongings over there, at least to get it out of the way of the bulldozers. So now Ray’s coming back. He carried the more expensive things on a bus with six backpacks and brought them down to his dad’s storage area. As soon as he came back, he’s like, “Oh my God.” He saw the dump truck, he saw the bulldozer. We’re talking three or four lettered trucks with lights everywhere. People are starting to notice. People are pulling over. It was crazy. The cops were going to every tent, waking people up.

Ray: A city worker came down and told them that it was illegal to do this but they still did it anyways.

Pamela: One of the workers even said, “I don’t even feel right doing this. If I could afford to lose my job, I’d walk off today. But I can’t.

Ray: They had the cops remove us and tell us that if you don’t get out of here, the cops are going to arrest you. I looked online and it says the eviction was illegal and discrimination.

The Homeless Bill of Rights says that I cannot get harassed by the cops or the city.

Uprise RI: Did you lose any property in this? What kind of stuff did you lose?

Ray: All kinds of stuff.

Pamela: Oh my God. We had, it was a joke, but it was a chinchilla fur jacket. It was funny. It was pretty loud. We don’t have much, but what bothered me the most was reading in the newspaper where they were like, “They said they lost everything, but there was so much debris and there were so many items left behind, such as hypodermic needles.”

I was so upset. We didn’t use needles. Most of the camp didn’t use needles. Were there people that came in, did the bad stuff and then left? Sure. It was like they were using our places like a fly by night, you know? But to bring up a hypodermic needles in the newspaper? Out of debris, trash, garbage, sleeping bags underwear, kids toys – you can find anything that you could name – you had to highlight hypodermic needles? Why did you say, why did you mention needles? Out of everything? You know what I’m saying?

We had sharp containers for people. I don’t remember seeing a needle there.

Uprise RI: I noticed tin the pictures the Mayor provided to the public that there was a sharp container. But the sharp container was in the picture was broken open, as if somebody trashed it.

Sharp containers trashed

Pamela: Somebody purposely stomped on it. That’s sabotage.

Ray: I had like five sharp containers tied to different trees.

Uprise RI: One of the things the Mayor said on Wednesday morning was that you couldn’t walk by the encampment without being at risk of stepping on a needle.

Pamela: That’s not true at all. That’s so crazy. I mean, I’m not going to say there was no drug use. I’m not going to sit there and lie. But we were about a hundred feet off the bike path. We were tucked away. There was no walking by. She’s talking about walking by, where were you going to walk by? My family couldn’t even find me.

It was that that bothered me. When you’re talking about homeless people, like, you’re making me more homeless than I already am. You’re making me more homeless by taking away the seven items I had. I had 17 when I started. Now I’m down to seven. Are you going to take the seven?

At some point when we started packing up our stuff, I looked at Ray and I said, “There’s really nothing. You know what I mean? Like, what do we have that’s worth anything anymore? You know? But then it’s like we have our tent and our tarps and things like that. We’ve always been blessed with everybody giving things to us and everything. But when they tell you to pack up what you can, it’s like your house is on fire and you got five things and two hands. What are you going to grab besides your kids? What are you going to grab?

Pamela: Right before the bulldozer started coming through, the cop goes, “Oh yeah, that’s right. I want to let you guys know. I got to throw this out there because I got to let you guys know – Did a bus already come here?” We’re like, “No dude. A bus did not come here.” “A bus is supposed to come,” said the cop, “They’re going to take all of you and whatever you can grab with your two hands. They’re going to ship you down to Providence. They got a bed waiting for you over at the Armory in Providence.”

Ray: I want to be in my hometown, you know?

Pamela: So not only are you telling us you want us to remove all of our junk, , so to speak, you want us to go through the junk that we have and take our prize possessions that can fit in two arms and take that with us to a another city.

Because you’re all set- you got rid of us. So you got rid of us because the branches were falling. That’s why they chose to clear out the encampment, because branches were falling and it was dangerous. Dangerous for who? Us? Right.

Ray: We were cutting the branches down. We were the ones clearing it up.

Pamela: You’re looking out for our best interest because you’re afraid of branches going to fall on us? Thank you so much. It took everything I had not to bring my tent back there after it was nice and clean to tell them “I love what you did with this place,” and moved my tent over near the water and say I wanted a better view of the waterfront anyway, you know? When I paid a mortgage for 20 years of my life, I couldn’t afford waterfront. But look at this now.

Uprise RI: They offered you a ride then Providence…

Pamela: The Armory, yeah.

Ray: She has claustrophobia. She can’t be around all these people. That’s like 200 people in one room.

Uprise RI: I’ve been there.

Ray: I can’t either. I can’t be around people like that.

Pamela: The worst thing I have to say… The day before this happened, on Tuesday, my dad had been sick with a rare lung disease. And on Tuesday I got my sister texted me. She said, “Dad’s not doing too good. He’s at Landmark. You might want to go see him because, we don’t know how long it’s going to be. He has a DNR, he’s on oxygen. He’s not doing great.” I’m like, “Oh my God.” I found this out Tuesday night. So I said, “Okay. First thing Wednesday, I’ll go.” So I wake up at six in the morning and I’m thinking, “I got to go see my dad today.” Ray’s packing. He’s like, “Pam, they’re going to come today.” So we got an argument. I’m like, “No, they didn’t come yesterday.”

He goes, “Pam, I’m telling you they’re going to end up coming today.” So I got so upset. I left, I walked off. I’m like, I can’t do this, I’m walking. I took a walk. I see this guy come out of the old Dominoes and he goes, “Are you okay Miss?” I’m crying. He’s like, “Listen, I feel like I got to pray for you.” He takes out this Jesus pamphlet and he goes, “Can I stay a prayer?” I said, “Listen, I think my dad’s going to die today. I’m losing my home and they’re bulldozing my tents.” He’s like, “Come over here. Your dad wants me to tell you that he doesn’t need to suffer anymore and that you’ve got to let him go and whatever you’ve been struggling with, the struggles will be over within the next couple days.”

I get back to the tent, all of a sudden the cops are like, “What are you doing?” Blah, blah, blah. So I find out we’re getting bulldozed, right? Ray comes off the bus. Everything else happens. The whole time I’m videotaping everything that’s going on. I’m thinking, “I’ve got to get to the hospital. I’ve got to see my dad.” I got a phone call at 1:30 that afternoon saying that my dad passed away.

Uprise RI: I’m sorry.

Pamela: The entire time I’m sitting there videotaping my home being demolished – that was the only time I had, you know? If that didn’t happen, I could have, I mean, maybe I could’ve been able to shoot over to my dad, say goodbye real quick while he was still alive? You know what I mean? Maybe I – maybe it was for a good reason I didn’t see him…

My point is my dad died while they bulldozed in my home. And I couldn’t even say goodbye because I had to make sure I got this recorded because this was so illegal. It was awful. It was awful.

We called ACLU, we got them on the phone. CCA came down. They told us to bring our stuff to them and everything. I talked to them about housing and we go see my dad. And then I saw that he passed away. I’m sorry. It’s like wow. You know what I mean? That one hour or two that I could’ve spent saying goodbye. I’m watching my house – all I have left and the police are all laughing, making jokes, like it’s funny.

“Oh wow. You guys are living it up out here.”

“You guys got it made!”

“Look at that! They got a toaster oven over here!”

“At least they don’t have to pay any taxes.”

“It must be nice with all this stuff.”

And I’m like, yeah, right. Because this is what we all signed up to be in second grade.

Ray: One city worker got told. They said, “Don’t talk to him. The worker was trying to talk to my friend and was told, “Don’t talk to him” like he was trash or something.

Pamela: Almost like we don’t belong. Like we aren’t real human beings. We were the dirt they’re shoveling in the freaking backhoe, you know what I mean? I’ve been on the other side. I’ve always been the one to donate to soup kitchens and make blessing bags for homeless people. I was always the sucker that gave the dollar to the guy at the end of the road. You know, so you’re buying booze.

I could never look at a human being in the way that we were looked at, and being a recovering addict, I’ve been treated that way. Like, “You people.” Yeah. “You people.” I hear “You people” and they act like we chose that, like we choose, like everybody has a choice. But at the end of the day, some of these people are not under the bridge bums. I was a board of selectmen person. I was a school mascot. I was my kids’ PTA president. I was a Girl Scout troop leader. I was a great mom. I owned a home. I did all the right things, you know, and because my husband, the provider, dies without life insurance at 45 – instantly he dies – I’m out of luck.