State House plaza homeless encampment cleared by Governor McKee
The State House homeless encampment was cleared by Governor McKee less than a day after a Superior Court Judge ruled he could. Workers from a disaster recovery service, Single Source, were ransacking the tents and belongings of unhoused people to throw into a truck for delivery to a landfill.
Less than 24 hours after Rhode Island Superior Court Judge David Cruise ruled in favor of Governor Daniel McKee and denied a complaint brought by lawyers on behalf of people camping on the State House plaza, workers from a disaster recovery service, Single Source, were ransacking the tents and belongings of unhoused people to throw into a truck for delivery to a landfill.
Tent by tent workers emptied, slashed, and crushed the private property of dozens of unhoused people who have been, according to various official and unofficial sources, sheltered elsewhere, imprisoned, or chased off state property. The exact number of affected persons is impossible to know: The Governor at various times suggested there were as few as four and as many as 17 people protesting and living on State House property. The unhoused community in Rhode Island is fluid and ever shifting: People can be in safe shelter or on the street in a matter of hours depending on ever shifting circumstances. Outreach workers, those doing the impossible job of seeing to the needs of the unhoused, struggle to find safe and stable shelter for people even as the state fails to supply needed beds.
The numbers on homelessness in Rhode Island, which is only a snapshot in time and not a definitive answer by any means, are alarming. The most recent count puts the number of unhoused people in Rhode Island, sleeping in “places unfit for human habitation,” at 509. Two weeks ago the number was 385.
The waiting list for people looking for shelter beds is now at 594 persons.
The Governor’s recent efforts to expand the number of shelter beds at the SureStay Hotel and his effort to open the Cranston Street Armory as a 24/7 warming center has added much needed shelter, but falls about 400 beds short.
Uprise RI arrived at the State House around 8:45am on Saturday morning. Single Source employees in environmental suits and face masks resembling those worn by exterminators, had already been at work for 15 to 30 minutes, tearing down tents and trashing belongings. After the first truck full of unhoused people’s belongings left for the landfill the team began power washing the marble.
I spoke to a man in charge of the operation who said that his team was contracted by the Governor to clean the State House plaza. If there are any people in any of the tents, he said, the State Police would deal with them.
There were no people left in the tents.
Matthew Sheaf, Communications Director for Governor McKee, responded to a request for comment about the clearing of the encampment:
“State employees with the Department of Housing continued to be on site at the encampment last night and transported four individuals to shelter.
“Have a good Saturday.”
As Uprise RI videoed the event, Governor McKee arrived in his chauffeured Chevy Tahoe. Uprise RI asked the Governor if he had a statement.
“I think we’re good,” said the Governor, walking into the State House.
The encampment was started at the State House as a political protest by Michael Nugent, who told Uprise RI that he is homeless by choice. Among other things, Nugent was fighting to get the Governor to do something real about the exploding crisis of homelessness in the state, a crisis compounded by the fact that winter was coming and hundreds of Rhode Islanders, including families with children, would soon be outside and unsheltered in dangerous sub-freezing weather.
Nugent has been unhoused for years, and knows how to set up a tent in places that aren’t on the top of windy hills, unsheltered by trees and on body heat sapping marble. He chose the State House because he had something to say, a point to get across to those in power. Nugent was one of the first to sign onto the complaint brought in Superior Court by Attorney Richard Corley to stop the eviction, but was incarcerated at some point after the eviction process began. He was unable to pursue his complaint in court.
On Saturday morning most of of Michael Nugent’s belongings were loaded into a tuck and brought to a landfill.
Advocates have been asking the Governor for months, over a year even, to take action on this issue. The Governor, and Housing Secretary Josh Saal, did not do nearly enough. A promise by the Governor that everyone in need of a shelter would have one by Thanksgiving was unapologetically broken. Advocates had gift wrapped one possible solution: Pallet Shelters. Pallet Shelters are small temporary structures that provide sturdy walls, electric heats and beds. Instead, the Governor was relying on using rooms at the now closed Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket.
Due to mechanical malfunctions, Memorial Hospital could not be used. The Governor apparently had no backup plan. Advocates stressed that the only possible solution now was to open motel rooms. At first resistant to that idea, eventually the Governor and Secretary Saal caved and made rooms available at SureStay in Smithfield. They also opened a 24/7 warming center inside the Cranston Street Armory.
These efforts will help to shelter around 1 in 20 Rhode Islanders currently experiencing homelessness in our state.
To focus on the eviction of the unhoused encampment on State House grounds, the state was forced to do two things:
- Ignore the problem of homelessness everywhere else in Rhode Island; and,
- Prioritize the people sleeping outside the State House over everyone else experiencing homelessness in Rhode Island by bypassing CES.
CES, the Coordinated Entry System, is the federally mandated system for prioritizing the housing of people in Rhode Island. When a person makes contact with an advocate and asks to be put on a waiting list for shelter, their information is entered into CES and a dynamic list is generated, offering shelters and beds to people that best suit their needs as space becomes available.
Because Governor McKee wanted to clear the encampment in front of the State House, the priorities established by CES went ignored. New shelter beds in the form of hotel rooms went to people sleeping outside the State House. The Armory was converted into a temporary 24/7 “warming center” instead of a shelter to avoid having to worry about CES shelter allocation at all.
Those living unsheltered anywhere else in the state were not prioritized for these new shelter opportunities, no matter where they landed on CES regarding their needs. Though CES was consistently being used and people were getting shelter beds through the system, the new beds and shelter created by Governor McKee and Secretary Saal were prioritized for those camping at the State House.
It should be restated:
The most recent count puts the number of unhoused people in Rhode Island sleeping in “places unfit for human habitation” at 509. Two weeks ago the number was 385.
The waiting list for people looking for shelter beds is now at 594 persons.
After Judge Cruise announced his decision in Superior Court yesterday, the lawyers in the case, Jennifer Wood of the Rhode Island Center for Justice and Lynette Labinger from the Rhode Island ACLU, said that they were going to review the decision before announcing next steps. In court, Labinger had objected to the decision, setting up the possibility of an appeal – but with no encampment remaining, no appeal may be possible.
The biggest danger of the encampment being cleared is that the McKee Administration might sit back and declare the problem of homelessness in Rhode Island solved. The Governor has repeatedly made comments calling into question the number of persons experiencing homelessness and the number of encampments statewide provided by advocates. Recently Secretary Saal wrote to advocates demanding location of all encampments in the state, and a list of all those awaiting shelter through CES, knowing that this information is dynamic, ever changing, and never exact.
It seems that instead of increasing the number of shelter beds, or investing in pallet shelters or securing an adequate number of hotel rooms, the McKee Administration is disputing the scope of the problem in the apparent hopes of solving an easier, smaller problem instead of attacking the problem as it is, which is big, messy and complicated. Expertise and knowledge is being ignored, and simplistic “solutions” are being offered, which is always a recipe for disaster.
In 2021, over 42 people died while experiencing homelessness in Rhode Island. Inadequate action on this issue means many more will die this year and the next.