Pawtucket’s problem with homelessness comes to a head

Pawtucket’s problem with homelessness comes to a head

Pawtucket’s homeless encampment off Taft Street was seemingly deserted Monday morning. (Breeze photos by Charles Lawrence)

PAWTUCKET – Down on the Pawtucket riverfront, just up from Town Landing on Taft Street, a tent city has grown to a size where it can’t be ignored. With the leaves off the trees, the city’s problem with homelessness is starkly visible at this location, one of several encampments in the city.

With the city’s emergency shelter at St. Paul’s Church closed this winter, a pre-Christmas snowstorm, Dec. 16-17, brought the debate over how to help the growing number of homeless residents to the forefront. There are conflicting viewpoints both over how that situation all went down and whether the city, state, and advocacy groups are working in partnership to take the best approaches to the problem.

Lisa Beade, a Pawtucket resident who lives in the neighborhood of the tent city, has been critical of the city’s response to the issue in the days leading up to the snowstorm, saying she used her own money to help advocates get homeless residents into warm hotel rooms. It became quickly apparent that the city had no real plan for how to protect the homeless, said Beade, and she wonders whether Mayor Donald Grebien and others would have been concerned if she and others hadn’t started making calls.

That assessment is disputed by Carlos Lopez Estrada, deputy director of administration for Grebien, who told The Valley Breeze that the city has gone to great lengths to work with the appropriate agencies to help the homeless as the city deals with this complex issue.

“There continue to be many caring and committed residents focused in on this homelessness crisis,” he said. “We have heard from many passionate advocates who have provided financing for shelter, meals, clothing, toiletries, haircuts, essential supplies, and more. Their passion and commitment is emotionally driven and appreciated.”

But unfortunately, he added, “when we all do these feel-good gestures, it sometimes creates unintended consequences to the professionals who are working closely with everyone who is living at the homeless encampment.”

The sad reality, he said, is that some of the homeless choose to not go to shelters and decide to live on the street for a variety of reasons.

“Coordinating the efforts through the proper agencies such as the Coalition for the Homeless allows the professionals to provide the assistance that these folks need,” he said.

As Beade sees it, there simply aren’t enough resources available or creative thinking in place to deal with the homelessness situation, and all parties need to find a way to move forward in a better way.

Marchetti: Good 
intentions not enough

Adrienne Marchetti, director of the Pawtucket Soup Kitchen, said she believes the city is doing what it can to address the homelessness situation, but it remains a difficult one to address. She agreed that there have been unintended consequences with people trying to address the problem on their own.

Marchetti said she has been at the encampment every day delivering meals, and she sees people delivering “truckloads of stuff” to the homeless there. That approach, she said, simply isn’t helpful. Fights are breaking out after the deliveries are made, with some people kicking others in the face as they battle over the goods, she said. There are days when piles and piles of blankets are dropped off, said Marchetti.

“It’s a huge mess. There has to be a better organizational system to pass things out,” she said.

When she visits, said Marchetti, she’ll have blankets and “everything in the car they could possibly ask for,” but will ask the residents what they need before leaving an item.

Gonzalez says R.I. needs coordinated approach

Alexandrea Gonzalez, founder of the new advocacy group Gather Together, United As One, was there in the hours leading up to the December storm and told The Breeze the disjointed efforts reflected what is too often the case in Rhode Island: that there’s no real plan as other states have addressed the homelessness problem. The most blame goes to the state, she said, but the city and nonprofits also bear significant responsibility.

“People are fighting over homeless people,” she said. “What is the competition about?”

Tarshire Battle, a former City Council candidate who works with Gonzalez and helps run a community garden nearby, said she’s aware of less-than-ideal methods by various churches and groups to help the city’s homeless, but emphasized that their group has not been the one dumping items for people to fight over. She said the only event they held for the homeless was organized separately in the downtown at the bus shelter.

Battle said people continue to get her group mixed up with others. She said one group was even cutting trees down along the riverfront, something she would never do as an advocate for green space. As a formerly homeless person, Gonzalez understands the homeless culture, she said, and many people, despite their best intentions, don’t seem to realize that they’re invading what essentially equates to the homeless residents’ space.

According to Battle, developers of a new soccer stadium along the riverfront have agreed to help move the community garden, but what happens to the homeless encampment, with construction at the site now weeks away, remains to be seen.

Groups of homeless people are now living on Taft Street, Division Street, behind Save-A-Lot on Armistice Boulevard, at Slater Park, and along the railroad tracks at the Pawtucket/Attleboro line, said Battle. There remains no backup plan for the homeless, she said.

City: We were forced back to reactionary mode, but doing our best

Lopez Estrada said that in the first quarter of 2020, the city began partnering on a proactive approach with House of Hope and the Rhode Island Office of Housing and Community Development on an ECHO Village project that was slated to provide shelter for approximately 100 homeless people. After committing funds and negotiating with the owner of a private property, the city and House of Hope learned on Dec. 1 that the specifications would not be accepted by state code inspectors, stopping the project, he said.

“The unintended consequence of this late decision is that the solutions are once again reactionary and only focused on short term options,” he told The Breeze.

It’s important to note that the “hardworking” people from the R.I. Coalition for the Homeless have identified each individual, provided temporary shelter, and social and emotional support, said Lopez Estrada.

“Unfortunately, this is all part of the current reality of what the professionals are working on,” he said, adding that the city appreciates the work done by the state to provide temporary housing during the December snowstorm. The night of the storm, Marchetti visited the encampments for one last check after everyone had been cleared and found two people still refusing to go to a shelter, he said.

“It was a scramble throughout the night trying to ensure that everyone had shelter, but ultimately her efforts and that of the Pawtucket Police Department along with others helped the two individuals in need,” he said. “The city continues to advocate for swifter solutions so that this does not occur in the future.”

Beade frustrated by lack of answers

Beade, whose recently formed Oak Hill civic group has helped Gonzelez with her collection efforts and outreach through Gather Together, said everyone knew about the storm coming days before it arrived, and there’s no excuse for the lack of planning to protect lives. She said when she called around 3 p.m. on Tuesday before the Thursday storm, she was told by Lopez Estrada that everything was set and there were vouchers available to get homeless out of the encampment before the storm arrived. By Wednesday morning, Gonzalez was becoming more worried, saying there were no vouchers. House of Hope representatives had come to take away most people, moving them to the Nylo Hotel in Warwick, but there were still about 10 people left and some were crying about the possibility of freezing to death, she said.

After talking with Battle and learning of a grant to purchase $1,000 in gift cards, she said they formulated a plan to take $400 of it to pay for hotel rooms. After taking the residents to the hotel, they were told by a staffer that they don’t take homeless people, but that person subsequently apologized and allowed them in, said Beade. That was part of intensive efforts throughout the evening to make sure everyone was settled in rooms, said Beade. Calls to the governor’s office turned up little in the way of resources to help, she added.

According to Beade, she took about $260 from a home equity line to help the cause of getting homeless people into rooms “so they wouldn’t die” and so she “could sleep at night.” She said Gonzalez was using her own children’s Christmas money to do the same.

Beade said she was upset to learn that homeless people are asked to call the Coordinated Entry System hotline to be picked up, as so many don’t have access to phones.

Battle said she and Gonzalez got permission from the Grassroots Fund to use a portion of the $1,000 grant to get people into the hotel on the night of Dec. 16-17.

Marchetti says homeless take care of themselves

Marchetti said some of those taken to the hotel in Attleboro trashed their room, including breaking a TV worth $500. She said they later admitted to her that they’d done so. Some of those she found crying along the riverfront about being left out in the cold had already been kicked out of the hotel room when she arrived, she said.

“This is their community and I think as a community we need to figure out how to help them and get them into housing,” she said. Some are not capable of living on their own, she added, so supportive housing is also important.

Marchetti said that when she calls the city to complain about issues, officials are always responsive within limitations. She said she doesn’t see this homeless situation as a city problem, saying the Taft Street encampment is in the spotlight now because it’s city land, but what happens when those people relocate to new spots?

“They’re hidden all over the place,” she said. “I have to say that Mayor Grebien does step up and do the right thing by them.” Though the response is sometimes slow, she said, the city showed that it cared when it addressed the lack of showers for the homeless in the summer of 2019.

“We need more affordable housing. That’s the answer,” Marchetti said, adding that she doesn’t see developers stepping to the plate to provide it.

The bottom line, she added, is that homeless people are survivors, many of them former military members. There have been several colder nights since the snowstorm, she said, yet the furor has died down.

“They’re not dumb, they’re just poor and homeless,” she said. Though she’s confident in their survival abilities even with the St. Paul’s shelter shut down due to the pandemic this winter, said Marchetti, she’s still out checking on everyone multiple times each day.

Most of the homeless are still being housed in hotels and are no longer currently along the riverfront, noted Marchetti.

City says struggle has intensified

Lopez Estrada said that officials at all levels of government continue to struggle to find solutions to the national homelessness crisis, which has worsened during the pandemic.

Until that national solution is sought out, states and local communities will continue to struggle to deal with these hardships, said Lopez Estrada.

“Pawtucket is no different than any urban centers throughout the region,” he said. “The city of Pawtucket continues to be committed to helping our homeless community transition into safe housing.”

The city allocates yearly substantial funds through its HUD allocation of Emergency Solutions Grant and Community Development Block Grant funding, he said, funds supporting partnerships with organizations including House of Hope, the Pawtucket Soup Kitchen, BVCAP, The Soupman, and local homeless community advocate Diamond, but this is not enough, said Lopez Estrada.

The ESG process begins yearly as the state puts out a request for proposals for agencies to submit proposals to help the homeless population, he noted. This year, no agency applied to operate one in the city through a separate request process and very few applied throughout the state.

“To deal with the current reality, the state has allocated approximately $3 million on a temporary hotel housing program,” he said. “We continue to work through the state and with the R.I. Coalition for the Homeless to make sure the Pawtucket homeless population continues to have temporary hotel housing through April.”

Representatives from House of Hope and R.I. Coalition for the Homeless could not be reached for comment this week.

Gonzalez says time is now for better system

Gonzalez said she herself was homeless three different times and had to leave Rhode Island to get the help she needed. Other states, she said, have this issue down to a science, but Rhode Island has systems to keep people down, she suspects because of the money involved in mental health care.

Gonzalez said she hopes to build a day center and shelters around it as part of her new organization’s efforts.

Gonzalez said it bothered her that the mayor wrote back to her after Christmas suggesting that if she’d connected with the appropriate agencies, House of Hope and the R.I. Coalition for the Homelessness, the situation wouldn’t have played out the way it did. After representatives for the agencies said they would be glad to do whatever was needed to transport people, she received one more email saying they were working on details and could probably use some help transporting people, but she said she never heard back again.

Prior to Dec. 8, when the coalition took over the CES system, Gonzelez, who was previously on the coalition’s speaker’s bureau, said she wonders what the agency was actually accomplishing.

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The primary obstacle to better processes is a lack of communication, she said, and the majority of the blame rests on the state. Rhode Island does a good job of talking, even creating a homelessness bill of rights that helps bring in the funding, but the real action steps are missing, said Gonzalez. Nearly half of homeless people don’t have a phone, yet they’re expected to call in to ask about shelter, she added. Even if they do get through, she said, they’re diverted from one place to the next.

Gonzalez said she is currently in the process of applying for a civic engagement grant to help work out a plan to give homeless residents a greater voice.

Most of those living in tents along Taft Street have been moved into hotels on a temporary basis.
An old pair of boots and a charred coffee maker at the Taft Street encampment.
A setup for cooking at the Taft Street encampment.
A USDA Farmers to Families Food Box, complete with potatoes, onions, milk and chicken drumsticks, as well as a letter from the Office of the U.S. President, sits within the vacant Taft Street homeless encampment Monday.