Woonsocket City officials called out on ‘cruel’ homeless encampment eviction

“What was done last week in our city was cruel and thoughtless. City officials that ordered the bulldozing showed a lack of empathy,” said Margaux Morisseau, Deputy Director of the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness. “This is not how we treat our neighbors. Everyone deserves compassion.”

Published on January 10, 2023
By Steve Ahlquist

“There are many things to be proud of in the city,” said Michelle Taylor, Vice President of the Community Care Alliance (CCA). “But the city’s treatment of its most vulnerable citizens is not one of them. Homelessness is not a personal moral failing or a lifestyle choice, but a catastrophic failure of the system…”

Taylor was speaking before the Woonsocket City Council on Monday evening, with Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt in attendance. Last week the Baldelli-Hunt Administration came under scrutiny for the cavalier way in which it evicted an encampment of unhoused people in the city. During the public comment period of Monday’s city council meeting homeless advocates, including some who are themselves formerly homeless, took the city to task for their actions. Mayor Baldelli-Hunt can be seen in the lower right hand corner of the video with Department of Public Works Director Steven D’Agostino seated to her left.

The full City Council Meeting can be viewed here.

Taylor continued:

“I can assure you that handing out tents and sleeping bags has neither caused nor perpetuated this problem. We have kept people alive – but not everyone. This year we lost 13 Woonsocket residents due to the negative consequences of homelessness.

“As of today, there are approximately 35 people living outside in Woonsocket, possibly more. Another 20 individuals find shelter each night at the Harvest Community Shelter. We have over 80 adults and children in the Northern Rhode Island Shelter in Smithfield.

“Everyone in this room would agree that homelessness is a problem. It is clear, however, that we don’t agree on a solution. It is time to admit that our policy of harassment is not the answer. This strategy has not found housing for people, nor has it forced them to move out of the city. Why not? Because these are our people. This is their home. This is where their family, supports and services are. They want to be here and we are failing them.

“I am here tonight to ask you to work with the human services providers in this city. There are solutions to this problem. When we provide emergency shelter we save lives, improve physical and behavioral health, connect people with resources, get people working, preserve families, reduce crime, and connect them with housing.

“When people remain on the street it is nearly impossible to achieve these outcomes because all of our energy is directed at crisis intervention…

“A housing wage is over $49,000, while median income in this city is $44,000. That’s over half the population [not earning] adequate income to afford fair market rent. The good news is that there are solutions, and you have a wealth of human services resources available to you in the city.

“I encourage you not to waste another day. Establish a housing work group that includes these community partners. Together we can end homelessness creating a healthier and safer community.”

Brandon Hong, a homeless advocate from Providence spoke next, followed by Dr. Nithin Paul.

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“We know that social determinants of health are 90% of why people have certain health problems, so as much as I can prescribe a person out of their diabetes, if their environment is not secure and safe and meeting basic needs, we know that we cannot get them to take their medications as we need the to, get their levels down,” said Dr. Paul, a primary care doctor in Woonsocket speaking about the health implications of homelessness.

“I devote my life to helping people the way I was helped, from Woonsocket, from this city,” said Betty Gallogly, a Shelter Coordinator for CCA. She is formerly homeless herself. “I have never seen homelessness at the state that it is right now. I’ve been working at the shelter since 2007 and homelessness has triple in the last three years.”

Advocate Paula Hudson noted that the Woonsocket City Council started their meeting with a prayer, “So I wonder if you ever thought, ‘What would Jesus say?'”

“308 people in Woonsocket are enrolled in the state’s Coordinated Entry System,” said Margaux Morisseau, Deputy Director of the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness. “That is the hotline people call when they are at risk or currently experiencing homelessness. Woonsocket has the second highest number of people experiencing homelessness in the state.

Margaux Morisseau, Deputy Director of the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness

“Homelessness is a housing problem,” continued Morisseau. “The only way to solve homelessness is to create affordable housing and supportive housing. Shelters are only meant to be a temporary option. As of last week there are 262 people who are still unsheltered, living outside in cars and tents…

“Displacing people who are unsheltered only causes more harm and trauma. [During the recent camp eviction] people lost winter survival items such as clothes, tents and sleeping bags that are critical to keeping them alive in the harsh winter weather. People lost medications that they need to survive. People lost vital documents such as licenses, social security cards and birth certificates that they need to apply for housing, get jobs or access support programs. People lost their personal valuables such as pictures of family members and other meaningful things that further leads to trauma and depression that people often experience when they are homeless.

“What was done last week in our city was cruel and thoughtless. City officials that ordered the bulldozing showed a lack of empathy. This is not how we treat our neighbors. Everyone deserves compassion.

“Furthermore, it was a clear violation of the Homeless Bill of Rights that was made state law in 2012… Bulldozing someone’s tent and other belongings is like someone going into your own personal house and throwing your things away. Victims of this action have a right to sue. Doesn’t our city have enough lawsuits to deal with? I certainly don’t want my tax dollars going to [defending] lawsuits that could have been simply avoided by being kind to others.

“I’m asking for five things:

  1. That the Administration creates policies and procedures for dealing with encampment issues that include coordination with service providers, provision of receptacles for people that are experiencing homelessness so that they can dispose of their own waste, proper notification when a site does need to be cleared, and no clearing until there are available shelter beds for people to be able to go to.
  2. That the City Council creates a Housing Task Force in Woonsocket to identify policy solutions that reduce homelessness and housing insecurity.
  3. That the City Council codify the Homeless Bill of Rights as a local ordinance so that it is known, enforced and respected in our city.
  4. I’m asking for more oversight of the CDBG funds to ensure that available funds are being used to create more housing.
  5. And finally, Mayor Baldelli-Hunt and Director D’Agostino, I am asking you to apologize to the people harmed by last weeks thoughtless and poorly planned encampment eviction.”

Woonsocket resident Alice Ellis, formerly homeless.

“We did go out [to the encampment] at least 12 different times,” said Public Safety Director Eugene Jalette defending the Woonsocket Police Department‘s actions on clearing the encampment and disputing reports that the encampment was cleared with only 30 minutes of warning. “The police did go out there at least 12 different times to let the people that are there know that we would be doing the project…and before that there was a letter given to people at that location.”

However, in his very next statement, Director Jalette undermined his assertion, saying, “When we did go out there was always somebody different there so it seemed like it was more of a transient place…

“Our public safety has the utmost compassion for all our citizens … To say that the city administration is not compassionate is a little disheartening. We work very hard to do everything we can to help everybody…”

The public in attendance bristled audibly at this.

Harrison Tuttle, executive director of the Black Lives Matter Rhode Island PAC, and weekly volunteer with The Milagros Project.

Marie Boutin, with the MAE Organization.

“We are, as the City Council [and Administration] going to coordinate a workshop/special meeting with CCA and any other nonprofit that deals with homelessness because we realize that this problem is not going away,” said City Council President Christopher Beauchamp in response to the testimony provided. “There will be a coordinated effort… that is in the process. When it happens it will be publicly broadcast so that people know about it.”

Woonsocket City Council

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