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Unhoused, Michael holds a solitary vigil outside the RI State House

“Just last week we had five tents in a row, all slashed up,” said Michael. “Everything tossed into the river…”
Photo for Unhoused, Michael holds a solitary vigil outside the RI State House

Published on June 16, 2022
By Steve Ahlquist

Visitors to the Rhode Island State House may have noticed Michael, who has been unhoused for three years, sitting outside with a sign that says, simply, “RI Has over 1000 Homeless.” Uprise RI spoke Michael about his sign and his life as an activist for, and member of, the unhoused community in Rhode Island.

Uprise RI: How long have you been without a home?

Michael: I’ve been homeless for three years now.

Uprise RI: In Providence?

Michael: Providence, Pawtucket, Woonsocket. They keep kicking me out of areas.

Uprise RI: I’ve been to few camps where the people just get kicked out, yeah.

Michael: I actually started a tent city in Pawtucket two years ago

UpriseRI: How long did that last?

Michael: That lasted about a year and a half.

Uprise RI: That’s not too bad.

Michael: No, we had the permission from the city and the highway department. We had the police department actually bringing us trash bags. We had 26 tents.

Uprise RI: How did that end ultimately end?

Michael: Same thing as usual. Developers came in said, “There’s nobody living here.” And we’re taken over.

Uprise RI: As opposed to going to an official shelter, what’s the advantages of being in an encampment?

Michael: You don’t have the rules. You don’t have to worry about if somebody’s drunk or drug using. They can do whatever they want and not have to worry about, “Oh, am I going to get kicked out?”

Uprise RI: Right. There’s also safety in numbers…

Michael: In the year and a half that I had the tent city in Pawtucket, we had the ambulance there three times and we had the police there three times.

Uprise RI: That’s not too bad.

Michael: And two of the times for the police was when we called.

Uprise RI: I wonder if the dorms at Brown University could say the same.

Michael: That’s less calls than any shelter.

Uprise RI: Yeah, sure. I wonder when people say, “Encampments are a nuisance or a danger” if they think about the actual number of police and medical calls that are made.

Michael: We had people staying in the camp and not drinking in public because they had somewhere where they could actually sleep. They would go get their alcohol, bring it back to the tent city.

Uprise RI: Yeah. If you live in a home, you can just buy and drink all the alcohol you want and get drunk all night, if you want…

Michael: And you don’t have to worry and no one says anything. The one thing about living in a home is you have security. You don’t have to worry about losing everything. I’ve had my stuff taken every time I get something new.

Uprise RI: It just gets taken or thrown away?

Michael: Police come through and wreck everything.

Uprise RI: I hear that happens a lot – people have their tents slashed,

Michael: Just last week we had five tents in a row, all slashed up. Everything tossed into the river.

Uprise RI: You think that was the police?

Michael: Most definitely. A couple days before that the police came through and said, “You guys have a week to get out of here.” All of us ended up getting new tents, putting them right back up.

Uprise RI: Where do the police get the authority to say you guys have a week to get out of here?

Michael: They have no authority.

Uprise RI: There’s no crime in being without a home.

Michael: There’s no crime, but we’re constantly charged with disorderly conduct. Drunkenness in public, open containers, throwing trash.

Uprise RI: If you’re in the tent or near your tent, I don’t know what the deal is… Before I started recording you were saying something about how the state government doesn’t care about poor people…

Michael: It’s all the poor. It doesn’t matter if you’re working or not. The average person – with the way rents are – the average person can barely afford to pay their rent, never mind supply food for their household, clothing for themselves. And if they have children…. The rents have gone astronomical and then, look at gas now. Now you’re spending half of one day’s pay to buy gas for the whole week.

Uprise RI: People are spending $100 a week to fill their tanks…

Michael: And that doesn’t last, the whole week.

Uprise RI: No. And hundred dollars is life changing for some people…

Michael: Yeah. It is. It really is if you figure the average person makes less than $30,000 a year and you figure that would be $5,200 if you spent just a hundred dollars a week on your gas.

Uprise RI: So you’re out here now, trying to get the legislature and the governor to do something?

Michael: Not just the government, but to let the people know what’s going on. Because the people see these little experts in the news talking about this homeless person or that homeless person and a little bit about what’s going on, but they don’t realize the numbers.

Uprise RI: Right. The numbers are high and growing…

Michael: When I started homelessness three years ago, the number was at 1055 homelessness. Now it’s up to 1300.

Uprise RI: Since they stopped all the COVID help, that number has grown and is growing…

Michael: They put some of the homeless into hotels and that’s ending this month.

Uprise RI: So then what happens to them?

Michael: Exactly. They’re going to be out on the streets, causing what the police will say is a nuisance.

Uprise RI: When you’re out here and you meet other people who are in your position, do you meet people with families,, with children?

Michael: A lot of them have lost their children because of being homeless.

Uprise RI: How does that work? DCYF?

Michael: DCYF comes in and takes over. And if you don’t get your act straight right away they end up taking custody of your children.

Uprise RI: That’s really tough.

Michael: They’re putting kids in foster homes, where they’re paying the foster parent to take care of this child. Why don’t they just give the parent that money? Keep families together?

Uprise RI: You’re basically saying parents should foster parent their own kids get paid by the state to take care of them. That would be a smart way of doing it.

Michael: Some kids get beaten or hurt while in foster care. Some are afraid of their foster parents.

Uprise RI: Thank you so much for your time.

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