Metro

City uproots homeless colony

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, September 17, 2009

After being evicted from their camps by city and state officials, a community of Providence homeless people who sought safety in numbers has been left looking for a home before the arrival of winter.

Residents of Hope City, a collection of tents below an overpass in downtown Providence, were told to leave the site last month by city officials after a Superior Court judge ruled that they were trespassing.

The group — which started after a homeless man froze to death under that bridge in January and included almost 40 people at its peak — then moved to the town of Cumberland.

Wilfred “Eagle Heart” Greene, chief of the Seaconke Wampanoags, offered Hope City’s leaders the use of a grassy area next to railroad tracks, an area Greene claimed as part of the tribe’s reservation, according to an Aug. 27 Providence Journal article. However, the Wampanoags have not been recognized as a Native American tribe by the federal government, and their claim to the Cumberland space was rejected in 2003 by a U.S. District Court judge in Providence.

Furthermore, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Cumberland location has been a Superfund hazardous waste site since 1983. In a letter to Greene, Town Solicitor Thomas Hefner said the group would have to leave by Sept. 2 because the site contained dangerous contaminants and lacked the proper facilities to support camping.

Since then, Hope City’s former residents have spread out across Providence. Some have returned to the streets, while others have moved in with supporters or friends.

Inhabitants of Camp Runamuck, a larger community located under an I-95 overpass near Fish Co., have not fared much better. After reaching an agreement with the Superior Court that they would vacate the site by Sept. 8, the group splintered.

About 10 Runamuck residents moved to a city-owned area near the Elmhurst Campus of Rhode Island Hospital, according to a Sept. 9 Journal article.

Around twenty others relocated to a vacant lot on Westminster Street, which has been named Provitents by its residents.

The city’s homeless continue to look for long-term solutions in addition to a place to stay the night.

“The city of Providence may seem small, but it has a big problem — homelessness,” said John Joyce, a formerly homeless man who founded Hope City along with Megan Smith ’10, a member of the student group HOPE, or Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere.

There is a “not-in-my-backyard” attitude about the homeless camps, Joyce said. But homelessness is not unique to Rhode Island — “it’s in every backyard on the planet,” he said.

Joyce continues to work with HOPE and volunteer attorneys to advocate for the those in need.

As the state’s economy continues to struggle and unemployment rises, the homeless population has grown by 43 percent, Joyce said. There are over 6,000 recorded homeless people in Rhode Island, he added.

For some of those people, particularly those with addictions or mental illnesses, there is nowhere to go, Joyce said. Some of the state’s shelters will not take anyone with such problems, he said.

For others, shelters are simply undesirable. “They’re overcrowded and unclean,” Joyce said, adding that the state does not regularly inspect the condition of shelters.
Shelters and tents are not a “long-term solution,” Joyce said. He added that placing homeless people in permanent housing could be cheaper than “warehousing them.”

However, funding is limited and the state’s pockets continue to shrink.

Representatives from the city could not be reached.

Neither Joyce nor the students from HOPE intend to give up. “We go directly to the homeless community and ask about their needs,” said Rob St. Louis ’11, a co-coordinator for HOPE.

Last year, the group was successful in opening up a “hugely successful” soup kitchen, said Meghna Philip ’11.

“We’re not going away,” Joyce said. “All I’m trying to do is make sure no one dies.”