Officials’ task: Stop Valley Falls bus shelter from being a home

Officials’ task: Stop Valley Falls bus shelter from being a home

The Valley Falls bus shelter on Broad Street is set for a $68,000 rehabilitation, but some town officials are questioning the wisdom of that kind of investment if it’s being used as a place of rest for homeless people. (Breeze photo by Ethan Shorey)

CUMBERLAND – The idea of evicting an already homeless person is never any easy one, local officials acknowledge, but it will be necessary to make sure taxpayer dollars don’t go to waste.

When all is said and done with the planned refurbishment of the 1990s bus shelter on Broad Street, says one local councilwoman, do town leaders really want to invest serious dollars into the facility if people still don’t feel comfortable sitting inside of it?

District 1 Councilor Stephanie Gemski, making clear that she was asking in the most empathetic and sensitive way possible, addressed the elephant in the room last week when she questioned the plan to invest $68,570 into the Valley Falls bus shelter next to Town Hall if officials don’t also have a parallel plan to find a new home for the man who lives in the shelter.

Gemski said she knows many people have tried to help the man and find him new accommodations, but those efforts haven’t achieved the goal. Meanwhile, sleeping bags and other items continue to be kept in the shelter, and she wonders if the facility that’s “always in a state of dishevelment” will continue in that state after planned renovations are done.

If the town is going to spend this kind of money on the project, said Gemski, it’s unfair to expect taxpayers to be OK with not using it.

“Nobody wants to sit in there,” she said.

Other council members echoed those sentiments, with Councilor Scott Schmitt saying he’s aware that “compassionate outreaches” to relocate the man have been declined. He said spending close to $70,000 with no resolution to the situation could put the town back in a similar situation two years from now.

Mayor Jeff Mutter noted the sensitivity of the matter, saying he hasn’t wanted to take a hard line with the shelter resident, but after some discussion he acknowledged that he “probably should have been more aggressive to remove the problem.” If it takes more aggressive measures now, he said, “we will do that.” He apologized, but said, “tomorrow’s a new day.”

There have long been complaints about multiple homeless people living in the shelter and in the Valley Falls Heritage Park on the other side of Town Hall.

The council eventually voted 6-1 at its June 17 meeting to allow Mutter to enter into a contract with BlueSkies Construction to complete the bus hub upgrade work at 45 Broad St. for $68,570, with Councilor Peter Bradley voting no.

Town Planner Glenn Modica explained that BlueSkies was the lowest bidder on the job to repair the run-down structure, which is missing part of its roof and has Plexiglas panels missing, among other issues. When complete, the shelter will look as it did when it was built in the 1990s, Modica said.

The Breeze reported in 2018 after the town won a $60,000 Community Development Block Grant to complete the work, and though the bid came in $8,570 higher than that, Modica said the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority has agreed to kick in that final amount to meet the contract price. The work will be ready to go in a few weeks, he said, and will take about four weeks to complete, hopefully by early August, just in time for the Broad Street improvement project being done by the state to make its way by in September. The work has to be done before fall to accommodate that work, he said.

The town is responsible for maintaining the shelter because it’s on town property, said officials.

The shelter was originally designed by landscape architect Don Leighton and built as part of the $1.8 million restoration of Heritage Park between 1994 and 1995.

Mutter said the extent of Broad Street revitalization efforts over the years has basically been to upgrade the bus shelter a couple of times. With the major Broad Street revitalization now set to commence, he said, it’s important to resolve the current situation there.

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“We will take care of that,” he said.

Councilor Lisa Beaulieu said she hopes the vandalized glass in the shelter will be replaced with something thick enough not to be broken again. Mutter responded that once the town resolves the situation with those living there, that particular issue will go away, as he learned that it was the man living there who broke the glass.

Bradley then asked if the man was charged with any crime. Mutter responded again that this is a sensitive topic and there was no direct evidence that the man broke the glass. Even if there was physical evidence, he said, it’s not a situation where he would press charges, particularly based on the poor condition of the shelter. Mutter said he has no interest in pressing charges against a man who already has enough problems.

The mayor said he’s not advocating for improving the building for the benefit of “occupants who shouldn’t be there.” It’s up to his administration to make sure that improvements don’t go to waste and the shelter is properly monitored and cared for, he said.

Community Outreach Coordinator Sarah King said the local homelessness issue is one she’s passionate about, saying she’s been in touch with multiple homeless outreach advocates who have worked with those at the bus hub. She said RIDOT will help the effort to connect the homeless person with outreach workers because the shelter is on a state road. Trained workers have been speaking on a regular basis with the man, she said, and hopefully that work will bear fruit.

Council President Craig Dwyer asked whether it would be worth adding a camera to the area, but Mutter responded that the town already knows who the homeless people are and that they’re there. There’s a human element here that officials are aware of and troubled by, he said, but they also understand the practical ramifications of having people live in the shelter. Officials are going to make sure other people who want to use the bus stop use it without interference, he said.

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I built a 600 sqft addition on my home with full bath for $60,000. How on earth does one spend $68,500 on a bus stop shelter that is what, 70 sqft? Powerwash it, and call it a day and spend $10,000 helping to house the homeless gentleman.

it's a really really nice bus stop.

Shouldn't they have addressed the trespassing criminal situation BEFORE they voted to spend the $68k? But I guess since it's a community block grant, it's considered "free money" so the heck with due diligence. And I agree with Hooper, you can get an 8 x 10 shed for $5,000. I say kick the guy out, put him in a new home, spend $20k updating the bus shelter, and give the rest of the remaining money back to the grant fund.

they dont care how they waste taxpayers money. What is the total of the grant ? Maybe the power wash is made out of gold and the building will be heated for the poor homeless man.PLEASE give us a break.

Has a study been commissioned to determine the expected number of users per day of the bus shelter? I don't want the homeless man to lose his shelter but maybe the structure isn't needed at all.