Civil Rights

Underpass encampment in Pawtucket issued eviction notices

Unhoused people living beneath a Route 95 overpass in Pawtucket were served eviction notices on Friday by the State of Rhode Island and the City of Pawtucket. Unhoused evictions are a legal procedure to clear unwanted people from a location the state or a private property owner is laying claim to.

March 25, 2023, 3:00 pm

By Steve Ahlquist

Unhoused people living beneath a Route 95 overpass in Pawtucket were served eviction notices on Friday by the State of Rhode Island and the City of Pawtucket. The notices explained that people still occupying the area would be forcibly evicted on April 3rd, but also offers services at congregate warming centers.

The process of being served an eviction notice while homeless can seem baffling as there is usually no permanent dwelling involved, but an empty plot of land upon which someone has pitched a tent or created a tiny shelter. Unhoused evictions are a legal procedure to clear unwanted people from a location the state or a private property owner is laying claim to. In the case of this underpass encampment, safety issues are being prioritized as a reason for action, though this is often the pretext given for any encampment eviction.

One difference between the way this eviction is being done and the way previous evictions in the state have been done is the absence of law enforcement involvement – but this doesn’t mean that people are free from legal repercussions. Attempting to stay past the April 3rd vacate date may result in fines or arrests.

Ahead of these impending underpass evictions, Department of Housing employee Joey Lindstrom has spent weeks getting to know the people living under bridge. When Lindstrom went to the underpass encampment on Friday, he asked people to sign copies of the eviction notices. Not everyone who was asked to sign did so. These documents have a certain amount of legal weight, as they can be used to show that people understand the impending eviction and have agreed, on some level, to vacate the area by April 3rd.

“We signed it,” said Alycia, who shares her space under the bridge with Ray. “Should we not have done that?”

“I’m not a lawyer,” said Uprise RI reporter Steve Ahlquist. “I don’t know.”

“Signing it basically says you agree to play nice, otherwise they play hardball,” said Jason, who has lived beneath the overpass for about six months. “As far as I’m concerned you’re getting kicked out either way, you’re just agreeing to not fight them.”

During last year’s eviction of the Rhode Island State House encampment, the data that Lindstrom collected was used in an affidavit by the Administration of Governor Daniel McKee as part of their case to successfully convince a Superior Court judge to uphold the eviction.

The State of Rhode Island and the City of Pawtucket released a statement about the notices of evictions:

Earlier today, State of Rhode Island and City of Pawtucket officials issued notice to vacate orders for the areas under two Pawtucket highway bridges, areas directly exposed to highway traffic. Per the order, the individuals must vacate the area within the next 10 days.

The goal of the State and City is to enable individuals living in this dangerous location to find safer alternative spaces. To assist with this, barriers were placed at the location today to ensure the safety of all involved during move outs and cleanup. Additionally, continuing outreach and services from the state and provider organizations are being offered to the individuals who are currently dwelling in these locations.

The State and City have worked together to establish a new center at 1139 Main Street in Pawtucket to serve individuals experiencing homelessness. Open Doors and Project Weber/RENEW, partners in this new Pawtucket center, have been communicating with the individuals under the bridges and will continue doing so.

During these 10 days, the individuals involved will be provided transportation to the 1139 Main St center, the Cranston Street Armory in Providence, and other locations. In addition, the individuals may receive personalized assistance based upon their specific needs.

Note that the Armory is not expected to be open as a warming center come the end of April. Open Doors RI responded to an inquiry saying, “Our staff, the City of Pawtucket, and the Department of Housing have all worked hard to make the Pawtucket warming station welcoming for those that need it, including the folks living the underpass. It can’t provide what everyone needs, but it’s an option.”

“We’ve been under the bridge for maybe a year and a half now maybe, something like that,” said Alycia, adding that, “Joey [Lindstrom] has been really nice.”

“I lived at the Crossroads Women’s Shelter for about a year,” said Alycia. “They found no place for me to go, so out onto the street I went.”

We asked what kept her from being able to find a place to live.

“I don’t have an income,” said Alycia. “Nothing.”

Alycia has a 14 year-old son living in Massachusetts. “I’m trying to get back to him, but I got stuck in Rhode Island a couple years ago.”

“Attention has really increased since the news has started to cover us,” said Jason. “An increase in negativity as well.”

The negative news reports about the people living under the overpass come from talk radio, Channel 10, and various local papers. These reports often traffic in dehumanizing narratives about unhoused people.

“If the state were to come in and offer you a better place to live, would you take that?” asked Uprise RI.

“Define a better place to live,” said Jason. “A housing or hotel voucher would be nice. All of us – we don’t like [congregate] shelters. I don’t want to get kicked out at 6:30 in the morning every day, take all my stuff with me. And I’d be lucky to leave with half the stuff I came in with.”

“What keeps you from being able to find a better place?” asked Uprise RI.

“I don’t know. Time?” said Jason. “I’ve been on a list for housing for about four and half years now. I’m not elderly or disabled so I’m relatively low-priority [for housing], which I understand.”

When April 3rd rolls around, Jason doesn’t plan to be under the bridge. He’ll be gone, living in a tent somewhere, re-establishing his life and the routines he follows to stay alive.

“At least it’s not the middle of winter,” said Jason.

The services from House of Hope have been essential to his survival, said Jason. “They give us hand warmers, socks, gloves, anything we need. They even fill special requests sometimes, as long as it’s reasonable. They’ve been amazing.”

Jason has gone through this “unhoused eviction” process before. He was living in what Pawtucket has called “Tent City” over where the Tidewater Development is now.

Tent City was nice, because “other homeless knew they could come there and be safe,” said Jason. “But it started to be overgrown, and when they decided to build a fucking soccer stadium, of all things, they served us eviction notices, which at the time I agreed to sign and play nice with. That was like three, four years ago now.” During that eviction, Jason says he was served an eviction notice by a sheriff, and given only a few days to vacate.

Alycia says that she and Ray have no idea what they will do come April 3rd. “We’re trying to get our lives together and it’s hard here. We don’t want to be here. There’s just no options right now.”

“I used to clean three or four times a week down there. I used to try to keep the trash under control but there were so many people who came over the summer the trash got to be too much,” said Al, who has been living under the overpass for about a year. “You get discouraged. You feel, what’s the point, you know?”

Al was not present when the eviction notices were first served, but later called Uprise RI to explain that he was given a notice, though he refused to sign.

When Al first found himself unhoused, he learned how to survive through his friendship with John, who has been living under the overpass for about five years. Since becoming homeless, the underpass has been Al’s only home. At the height of the occupation there were maybe a dozen people living under the bridge, said Al.

“When I was on my feet, doing good and working, I would buy my cigarettes in New Hampshire – five cartoons every two weeks – and I would come off this exit here and give John five packs every two weeks,” said Al. “When I hit hard times and didn’t have anywhere to go I came and talked to John and he took me under his wing and started helping me.

“We all look out for each other out here.”

Al doesn’t plan to be under the overpass when April 3rd rolls around. “My thought is to clean up everything down there, take down the structure, and when they come on April 3rd it’s all going to be gone.

“We made the mess, we built the structure, it’s only right that we take care of it ourselves,” said Al. “We might be homeless, but we’re not mongrels, you know?”

The structure is a small room built to shelter Al from the elements, and from rats.

One problem with keeping the area clean is that no one will pick up the trash bags once it’s collected. “I had to find places to dump the trash bags myself,” said Al. Area businesses became upset that he was using their dumpsters to get rid of trash.

Al told Uprise RI that he believes that the City of Pawtucket and the State of Rhode Island won’t collect the trash because there may be needles mixed in among the trash. At one point Al collected 25 thirty gallon bags of trash and, “they just sat there,” uncollected. Then the rats got into it, and the trash needed to be re-bagged.

Al is an auto mechanic and has done construction work. “I’m kind of a Jack-of-all-trades. I’ve been working on cars since I was five-years old.” For a short time, Al said, he worked, while unhoused, for Steven Cianci, who ran for city council in Providence’s Ward 5. Al did demolition work for Cianci for about three months.

Al says that he’s had discussions with people from the Department of Housing and the City of Pawtucket about getting a voucher or a hotel or into more secure low-income housing. A congregate setting, like that at the Armory, doesn’t work for Al.

“I can’t sleep around groups of people,” said Al. “At the Armory or something I’d be up for weeks. I could never sleep. I’d rather just be under a bridge at that point.”

Pawtucket Police officers have been decent, said Al, and seldom trouble unhoused people. People coming off the exit, he says, used to be kinder, but as time has passed they have become more intolerant, perhaps due to the recent spate of news coverage demonizing unhoused people.

“It’s really tough right now to make money panhandling,” said Al. “Nobody wants to help. Nobody wants to give you a buck. Nobody wants to even look at you and give you a smile.

“Living outside is hard,” said Al. “Some days are good, some days are bad. You just have to take it as it comes. When you’re living out here it’s tough to stay clean. It’s tough to have a positive attitude. It’s tough to keep that willpower to keep going.”

We asked what a better situation might look like.

“If they can actually get us some housing, that’s a big step,” said Al. “I could actually go into a job interview and not smell like I haven’t showered.” If the housing doesn’t come through, Al plans to pitch a tent somewhere out of the way, where he won’t be noticed. “Out of sight, out of mind.”

Housing would “improve my personal image a little bit. Give me a place to lay my head and not worry that a rat is going to bite my lip. It’s why I built the structure. At first I just had a military cot and a couple of blankets, and one night a rat bit my lip. After that I built the structure. I never intended it to be a mess. I never wanted to be a burden. I just want to survive.”