Woonsocket Mayor responds to accusations about homeless encampment eviction on conservative radio

Mayor Baldelli-Hunt hit back at advocates, borrowing a tactic from Rhode Island Governor Daniel McKee, and accusing the agencies of keeping people homeless in order to generate money for their agencies. She also said that he would not apologize to the people she displaced and demanded an apology from advocates for herself.

Rhode Island News: Woonsocket Mayor responds to accusations about homeless encampment eviction on conservative radio

January 11, 2023, 4:42 pm

By Steve Ahlquist

Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldell-Hunt has been radio silent since her administration ordered the eviction of a homeless encampment a week ago, with only sparse details about her decision reaching the public. But after Monday night’s meeting of the Woonsocket City Council where several advocates representing agencies that serve the homeless population in the city were critical of her actions, Baldelli-Hunt hit back Wednesday, breaking her silence on local, friendly and conservative talk radio station WNRI.

Interviewed by the station’s owner, Roger Bouchard, on a program called Upfront, Mayor Baldelli-Hunt hit back at advocates, borrowing tactics from Rhode Island Governor Daniel McKee by accusing the agencies of keeping people homeless in order to generate money for their agencies. She also said that she would not apologize to the people she displaced and actually demanded an apology from advocates for herself.

Here’s a transcript:

Roger Bouchard, owner of WRNI Radio in Woonsocket: Mayor let’s start with you. What brought this whole encampment issue to your attention? Has it been on the front burner for a long time or is there something you heard about when you came back after the 10 week absence?

Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt: It was while I was on “sabbatical,” I guess you could say.

Roger Bouchard: I like that term, alright. I’ll refer to it as a sabbatical.

Mayor Baldelli-Hunt was removed from office by the previous Woonsocket Council on October 5. She was running unopposed for re-election and was sworn in as Mayor again On December 6. She calls this a “sabbatical.”

Lisa Baldelli-Hunt: I recognized [the encampment issue] myself. I was receiving phone calls, messages, text messages, all different forms of communication and I indicated that you need to speak with Daniel Gendron [former City Council President and interim Mayor of Woonsocket]. But I did make an effort. I reached out to [former Director of Human Services] Linda Place and Dan Gendron. [In] my initial email to them I did not get a response. I emailed again indicating that you need to do something, make a statement to explain what’s happening because there’s a lot of concerns surrounding this, and on the polar opposite ends of concern, which I’ll talk to in a second. Then I did get a response from Linda, and I believe she said she was going out there, but later on I learned that she did not – but others did, and that is why the Deputy Chief is here.

The concern there, Roger, is multifaceted. First of all, it’s no secret that winter comes in Rhode Island and it comes in Woonsocket as well. Different agencies, working with the homeless, knew winter was coming. They have a portal and they know who they service, who is homeless, every single day. Yet there are individuals who are sleeping outside in the dead of winter, and we haven’t even had a major snowstorm yet.

That, that’s disturbing in itself. I find going camping on a scheduled trip to be something that I’m not comfortable with, nevermind someone who’s living outside in a tent on the ground. It’s concerning knowing that they’re there and knowing that the state of late has been pouring in additional funding, millions upon millions of dollars, into trying to keep people safe and warm. Yet there are people living in tents in Woonsocket. Let’s not forget the fact that there are people who want to live outside and want to live on their own, in tents, in the woods. We’ve encountered some. We’ve spoken with professionals regarding their choice to do that. It could be from years of mental health problems – but that’s their choice – that’s not everyone.

In addition to that, we had safety issues there and for those who informed us that we were not accurate about the safety issues, not that I’m happy to do this, but we posted pictures on the city website, you can go to the city website. I’m not going to leave them up beyond Monday because it’s not good to display for people who are looking at our website, potentially looking to come into our city. But they’re there just to be certain that people understand the danger that was there. Part of that danger was created by them, or I should say all of it was, other than the problems with the trees. And in comes the Director of Human Services, Public Works and Law Enforcement to determine how we combat this and how do we get them away from this squalor, which by the way, during the September Zap cleanup, that section, if my memory serves me right, that was the section of the city that had the most garbage, trash, hypodermic needles, etc. Volunteers, people who did not create the mess, cleaned it up. Fast forward to January, and it’s in worse condition. We sent approximately 13 highway workers, an entire day, in eight dump trucks full of debris, for the most part.

Roger Bouchard: Can you clarify the location for our listeners?

Lisa Baldelli-Hunt: If you travel down the Truman Bypass and the bike path is on your right, it is on that side of the road. the team came together and said, “We need to get these folks into a warm place, off the ground, and if nobody else can do this, we’re going to try to do it.” And that’s where it started.

Roger Bouchard: You come back in [to office] after your “sabbatical” – you couldn’t do anything about it because you were away. On the first day you’re back in [office] do you start working on this issue? You’ve only been there a couple of weeks now. Bring us to to where the Deputy Chief is involved in this.

Lisa Baldelli-Hunt: Linda Place, as the Director of Human Services, was always the point person. She worked with folks, getting them into a motel in the city and working with others who may come in. She indicated to me in a meeting [that] it was time for her to go. [Linda Place stepped down from her position last Friday, days before the encampment was bulldozed.] I think the job evolved into something more than what it was nine years ago, and then you’re nine years older, right? That’s when we decided that A., It’s not safe, and B., The Public Works director said these trees are falling. Some are rotted, the limbs are hanging. Then we discover the depth of the squallor that was there, some of the activity that was there, and the fact that it is now January and they’re still living outside and that should not be happening. It was everything that I mentioned, not one particular aspect of it.

Roger Bouchard: It was a week ago today that this happened. We have a public works department. We have a police department represented here in the studio. We have a Mayor in City Hall. How did this all all happen?

Lisa Baldelli-Hunt: I called a meeting and Public Works, Public Safety and Human Services came in. They all shared what they knew about the situation and being sensitive, I want to state this for any city counselors, any residents, any agencies: The majority of what anyone may have heard at the council meeting on Monday was not factual and that’s why it’s important to know the facts, which we’re going to explain to you now. We understand the sensitivity. As much as we don’t want them on the ground, you can’t just go there and say, “Okay, you have 10 minutes, or 15 minutes or 30 minutes. Pack your things, you are out of here.” Because we do understand, and we do have agencies that work with our police department firsthand, that there are some sensitive issues with some of the individuals who live outside.

Lisa Baldelli-Hunt: There’s anxiety, depression, mental health, drug abuse, alcoholism. There’s a lot to it. You don’t go in and “bulldoze” like some individuals said. I get a kick out of people who come to the microphone, who tell us what happened, but had zero to do with it. The director feels [the people at the encampment] were more transient. It was almost like a stopping ground where, if you weren’t at the tent that you actually lived in, you could stop at this location as well. It was like, not your bedroom in your house, but your parlor.

Please, I’m asking, dismiss what you heard. I’m going to be very frank, dismiss what you heard. The Deputy Police Chief can tell you now what was posted, how many times they went out. And then we will circle back to the disheartening part of knowing that we have a place for them to go.

Roger Bouchard: Mr. Deputy Police Chief, what do you have to say?

Woonsocket Deputy Police Chief Thomas Calouro: First, it was an incredible showing of passion, with all of us having the same end result in mind. And that’s to get people housed. We were, my department, I was involved in that meeting. We were notified that there was going to be a cleanup there and of the need to clean up that particular area. The condition it was in really surfaced during Zap 50. When [the clean-up] was scheduled, which was for January 3rd, [the police] were probably out eight days prior to that. I had gone [to the encampment]. I personally went out to that site. I personally stood on that site at least a half a dozen different times. In the six or so times that I was personally there, there was always a different group of people there.

Sometimes that number ranged from one to none to four. About the 28th of December, I put out a directive to the shifts to have officers go out and walk the riverbank and notify anybody that they came in contact with. “Hey, there’s a cleanup scheduled, slated for this area. It’s going to happen on January 3rd. And you need to be aware so that any of your personal belongings won’t get disturbed or dismissed or thrown away. Anything that you don’t want feel free to leave, but you’re going to have to collect your stuff and get out of the area because it’s going to be a work zone with chainsaws and wood shippers and such. Shortly after that, we got notification that Stanley Tree was going in there after the city. I’m not sure if they were contracted by Verizon or the Corps of Engineers, but they came in after us in that same general area.

The area just wasn’t safe to have people in. The morning of January 3rd we limited police uniform presence there. This is an incredibly transient population. Some are very receptive to having a uniformed officer speak to them. Some aren’t, due to anxiety and other things. I went out there, there was probably four people there. They were gathering some stuff and leaving. I personally said to all of them, the same way I had prior, we’ve secured shelter space for you in Providence. You just go ahead and walk across the street, go into the lobby, get warm, and we’ll get you a ride down there. No one showed up. Two said that they were going down to CCA to get some treatment, and they would be back later in the day.

And I said this is an open invitation. If you find that your day got ahead of you and it turns dark, come at night and we’ll still give you a ride down. The beds were already secured. The number was already given and transportation was already arranged. Nobody took us up on it. A few said straight out that they didn’t want to go, they didn’t want to leave Woonsocket, which I understood. I said you have to work with the social services that you’re going down to talk to about getting some arrangements, but you can’t be here while this work is going on because it’s a danger. Tha’s how that played out. It was never done in a militant or authorative way. These were conversations that were had in the woods about that area being cleaned.

And while officers did go out about an hour before the crew showed up, the crew started at the far end of the bypass, which afforded them at least another two hours to gather anything that they wanted to get. When they were leaving the area there were tents left behind. I asked, “Are these yours? Is any of this your stuff?” And it was, “Nope, the people that lived there, they left that. They haven’t been here in months.” That stuff was removed, but nobody’s personal property was destroyed.

Roger Bouchard: I think the key thing, as I listened to your explanation, was the date December 28th. This goes back quite a while for notification of when this encampment, shall we say, relocation, was going to take place. Thank you deputy chief. Mayor, back to the council meeting. There’s Michelle Taylor from CCA, one of their people speaking, and then there’s Margaux Morisseau from the Coalition to End Homelessness, and there was Dr. Nithin Paul from Thudermist – the Social Service Agencies. Were you surprised that they all showed up at the council meeting, after the fact, to pretty much condemn the way that you handled this? What is the issue here with these social service agencies?

Lisa Baldelli-Hunt: Am I surprised? No, I’m not surprised. What I am surprised at is the fact that we would have a social service agency that is not encouraging folks who are homeless to go to a location that is available to them. And to me, that sends up red flags.

Roger Bouchard: That would be CCA, Community Care Alliance?

Lisa Baldelli-Hunt: Correct. The Deputy Chief, Director Place, and others, secured and confirmed, and we have it in an email, that there were beds available -many beds available for homeless individuals. They would have a roof over their head, they would have heat, they would have three meals, and there would be services provided to them. And the fact that we continually hear – some people have drank the Kool-Aid and also don’t know the facts, but hopefully they know the facts now that they heard from the deputy – that they don’t want to go there and we don’t want them to go there. [Here the Mayor is refering to the warming center at the Cranston Street Armory in Providence.] Why are you not encouraging a client to go somewhere that’s safe and warm, where you could be fed and you could be taken care of, and you could still get the services that you need?

Roger Bouchard: I hope you are going to provide that answer.

Lisa Baldelli-Hunt: I will tell you what I think. I think it’s like you losing a client, who decides to not advertise on your radio program.

Roger Bouchard: You’re saying [that for] CCA, this is part of their income base. These are clients, they don’t want to lose them. And the places you’re talking about are outside their domain, in Providence. And they lose “customers.”

Lisa Baldelli-Hunt: Correct. That’s sad. That is a sad situation. What I also found disturbing, and I have great respect for doctors, but what I also found disturbing was the fact that we were told, and we are going to try to find out, and I will send someone from the Woonsocket Police Department over to Thundermist to speak with the doctor, to ask the doctor, “Who is the gentleman that you referred to that is working two jobs, paying child support and living in a tent?” I look at that a little differently. I look at that and say, “If that is a client of CCA and Thundermist, because Thundermist works with CCA, and Thundermist does a lot of good work, but CCA has failed this man because the millions and millions of dollars that they receive to combat homelessness and you are admitting that you have a client who is working two jobs, paying child support and living in a tent? First of all, I find that hard to believe. Secondly, that is a disgrace. That that man is living in a tent with two jobs and paying child support and you have not used resources you have for rental, for security deposit, vouchers. With that said, some things were unveiled.

I also learned that folks like Michelle Taylor, and I’m sure she does some fine work, but how do you really know what’s going on at the encampments if you don’t go there? See, we know that the people they were referring to didn’t live there because the deputy and others went there. It was more of a transient type of place. Like the folks said to them, those people have been gone for months. It’s just that they left everything behind. And not everyone has mental health problems and or anxiety, depression. Not everyone does. But the pictures that you will see, and the safety issues, were not just for the homeless. It was for the people walking, the people walking their dogs, their kids on their bicycles, because it was probably difficult to not step on a hypodermic needle. You run a radio station, the deputy chief runs a police department, CCA runs a social service entity.

I have to look at everything and I have to bring balance. We need to try to put individuals who are homeless in a warm place, but you also have to make certain that your city is safe and clean and that people are not fearing stepping on or falling or getting poked with hypodermic needles. Not to mention our waterway, on a daily basis, was getting polluted with bags, needles, food, packaging, and clothing going downstream. I have to look at everything. When people say, “the mayor has a cold heart” I’m trying to bring balance, and I’m happy when my staff says we found housing for them. Quite frankly, I’m disgusted when I hear that the people who are supposed to be the main point to take care of these folks is discouraging them from going to other shelters. Did a couple go? Yes. But no. They’re being discouraged and I know it for a fact because they talk.

Roger Bouchard: They want them to be counseled and housed right here in Woonsocket.

Lisa Baldelli-Hunt: Yes. Right. But let them stay out in a tent. Let ’em stay in a tent because we want to keep them here.

Roger Bouchard: Mayor, obviously in 2023 the relationship with Community Care Alliance is not the best, but it was interesting that we got a fax, I don’t know if it a fax or an email, but apparently the City of Woonsocket closed down something over at CCA, one of their mobile trailers. And I was wondering whether that was in connection with this homeless thing? We got it, [but] we couldn’t understand exactly what it was. It came from the City of Woonsocket so I thought maybe you could explain that to us because we didn’t want to put it on the air because we didn’t understand it. But I know you understand it.

Lisa Baldelli-Hunt: I don’t understand the document that you gave me. I did not read this. You’re handing it to me this morning. It’s three pages. But it’s okay. I did get a quick briefing on this right. From Director [Michael Debroisse, Director of Planning and Development], and I do know that he did have a conversation with legal counsel. And whatever they moved forward with, and I think the deputy chief’s familiar, this started like months ago.

Roger Bouchard: It concerned a trailer of some kind, right?

Lisa Baldelli-Hunt: Yes. [A trailer] that the Community Care Alliance has that is parked in their parking lot.

Roger Bouchard: Do you know what kind of a trailer it is? Deputy Chief?

Thomas Calouro: I believe [Michael Debroisse] would be the better entity to ask. I believe there was a plan. They were requesting a plan to put a trailer of some kind and fix it to the ground out in their parking lot.

Lisa Baldelli-Hunt: I think this is better off for Director [Michael Debroisse], but I think there was some type of vehicle that was parked in the parking lot, but they didn’t go through zoning.

Roger Bouchard: With your blessing, I’ll give him a call and we’ll get to that story. Because if everybody isn’t up to speed on it…

Lisa Baldelli-Hunt: Yeah. I don’t want to be like others and give information that’s incorrect.

Thomas Calouro: I know it’s been going on for a while.

Lisa Baldelli-Hunt: It’s been going on for a while. This was, I was on sabbatical.

Roger Bouchard: Mayor, do you have any final comments on this homeless thing? I heard your initial comments on Channel 10. We replayed them the day after it happened. You’ve filled in a lot of the details here. Is there anything else you’d like to say about it?

Lisa Baldelli-Hunt: I just want to say that my world is different than others, and it’s different than a lot of others. When you have the opportunity to put someone in a safe, warm place and keep them secure and give them services that they need, you should be encouraging them to do that. I’m sure there are doctors and mental health physicians and counselors that work with them, but working with them also is encouraging them to be somewhere safe and not in a tent. I feel that at times they’re being used as tools to receive more funding, to increase the screening effects, I guess you could say. And I find that extremely discouraging and totally in opposition of what should be happening.

We are very responsive to their needs. I can tell you that the majority of calls, the super majority, hundreds upon hundreds of calls to our public safety officials take place in the social flatland area and it is attached to what we spoke to today. The amount of runs that we have that go to certain areas is enormous. It is repetitive, and they respond because that’s what their job is, and that’s what their duty is. And it’s proof that whatever services and approaches are being taken to rectify the problems that these individuals have is ineffective. There needs to be a new approach.

Roger Bouchard: We have an email that talks about something that you’d be interested in Mr. Deputy Chief and Mayor. A Listener stumbled across another encampment at Cold Spring Park. Have you heard about that one? This weekend, this listener ran across it. Please, mayor, can you have the Department of Public Works go down and clean it up? A lot of kids, families and pets go to that park.

Lisa Baldelli-Hunt: I do want to mention one other thing and this is where I say this is multifaceted, and it’s not just about a mayor being one dimensional. We’re talking about the fact that our police officers, our public works employees. When our parks close at dusk, the parks are closed. The parks are closed. If you sell your house, Roger, and you say, I sold my house. I don’t have anywhere to live because the house I’m moving into isn’t ready for three months. I’m going to take my RV and I’m going to go park at Cold Spring Park, and I’m going to live in my RV at that park until my house is ready. We will be serving you as well, Roger, and telling you to get out of the park. We can’t have that. That’s city property. Not to mention, there are advocates who are very concerned, and our law enforcement works with them as well, as does our fire side of public safety. They are very concerned about children and situations where children are involved in situations of sexual abuse.

We are dealing with individuals who are homeless, who are sex offenders -sex offenders. If you leave a sex offender in a park that we own, and something happens in that park with that sex offender, who is potentially not registered as to the location where they’re supposed to be registered at, and then something happens to some child, we’ve got a multitude of problems on our hands. So you know what, let’s take the high heels off and get down to those encampments and talk to your clients and get them in a safe place. And Governor McKee just opened up more beds yesterday.

Roger Bouchard: Yes. 250. [Editor’s Note: Actually, just 40 and those beds won’t be available for three weeks.] Mr. Deputy Chief, I have a question for you and might as well make this program about homelessness because we’re almost out of time, but the police department, 24/7, deals with this population all across the city. I’m just just wondering in this day and age, when police are often under under criticism, what kind of delicacy you have in terms of encountering these individuals you must run across them all the time. I don’t hear any complaints about you guys mistreating them. Apparently you know they’re there, they know you are there. Tell us how you handle that situation.

Thomas Calouro: I can tell you that Chief Thomas Oats and I are extremely proud of the men and women of our department in the dignified and respectful way that they treat the everybody in our community, including the homeless. We’re somewhat excited that this has come to a head because we are a stakeholder in this, and we can’t wait to get in this workshop Council President Christopher Beauchamp is is pushing forward. It’s a great initiative, and it’s going to get everybody at the same table to try to come to a resolution that is beneficial to not only the city, but to the people that are homeless. I’m humbled and proud every single day by the people that we put in our uniform and have pushed those police cars through the streets. They treat these people with dignity, respect, and compassion at every turn. [When] we go out there we have a very good rapport with people that generally run the other way when they see us. Hopefully, as we roll forward, because this problem’s not going to go away overnight, [but] clearly, as we roll forward, we can come to a resolution that benefits everybody and keeps everybody safer.

Roger Bouchard: Are these encampments all over the city? Do they move or are they pretty much stay stabilized?

Thomas Calouro: I would tell you that we know of probably a dozen, maybe a little bit more than that. They do move, they do definitely move. Sometimes they, they move on and then other people move in. There’s a lot of them out there that you see. If you can see them and they can see you, they’re abandoned. There are tents in the city. There’s some on Mandel Road right now. I think at the bottom of Logee Street, if you look, there’s a tent. It’s just there, and now it’s fallen over. Nobody’s been in that tent for a long time. Beat officers go out and they check these things all the time as fire, who do a tremendous job out at these encampments regularly for calls for service.

Roger Bouchard: It’s a world that a good part of the residency of Woonsocket, like myself, are unaware of. I mean, we know they’re out there, but we don’t know much about it. Got a few moments. Mayor, your last shot.

Lisa Baldelli-Hunt: I just want to say I sat quietly at that meeting and I listened to the nonsense that was spewed. The only thing I agree with them on is that there’s homeless in the city of Woonsocket.

Roger Bouchard: Are you going to go to that meeting that Council President Beauchamp mentioned?

Lisa Baldelli-Hunt: I will tell you this. There are certain people, that if they are on this particular committee, my administration will not participate because I am not going to be told by someone who continually has negative things to say about the administration and spews negativity and false information that she is going to demand an apology from me and Director Steven D’Agostino. No, I demand an apology from you, for allowing people to remain homeless in our city when you have the funding and the capability to keep these people in a safe, warm place.

My question is, and I’m going to have a bigger conversation because I’m going to be speaking with a congressional delegate very soon, the funding that’s being received, why are they not taking individuals who have drug addiction and paying for them to go to a rehab facility? Give that person a chance. It is a known fact that you can go to a rehab facility and, and fall again within weeks or months or years, and you go again and again and again because it’s the devil that’s living inside of you that you need to extract. And it’s not easy. Stop spending money on tents and backpacks and get these folks into a rehab facility.

Roger Bouchard: The agency you’re referring to would be…?

Lisa Baldelli-Hunt: CCA. And I’m going to be putting in a request to see how much money they’ve received.

Roger Bouchard: And the person you were referring to would be Michelle…

Lisa Baldelli-Hunt: No, Margaux Morisseau is demanding an apology. I’m sorry, but that is not happening. I demand an apology from you for allowing these individuals to remain in tents and thinking it’s okay that they do when we have beds available.

Roger Bouchard: Gotcha. Alright.

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