Op-eds, Opinions

Pichardo ’20: Do you know where the homeless people are?

Op-Ed Contributor
Thursday, December 7, 2017

Last week, the streets of Providence were especially empty. As I walked through Downcity Providence and up Broad Street, I could feel the absence of the city’s most vulnerable, who usually sleep near the river downtown, line the entrance of Crossroads Rhode Island, a large Providence shelter, and congregate at bus stops on the South Side. Over the past year, I’ve been working as an outreach worker with the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project, an organization of formerly homeless people that seeks to build relationships with people currently experiencing homelessness and connect them with resources. During my time with RIHAP, I’ve come to look forward to my interactions with the homeless and on quiet nights like this most recent one, I always hope that the absence of familiar faces on the streets means that more folks have been housed.

However, while I’d like to be optimistic, I know better than to believe this. Many in the homeless community are likely sleeping on the floors of overflow shelters that require them to leave before sunrise. Others very likely have journeyed out of the city to other parts of the state or even the country; a few individuals I’ve met before have done so in hopes of finding relief elsewhere. More still, I suspect, have been actively pushed outside of their usual dwellings by law enforcement, as has been occurring in downtown Providence for the past few years. This movement of people experiencing homelessness is not occurring on its own; the homeless don’t always leave public spaces of their own accord. Stakeholders with influence at both the local and state level are taking deliberate steps to remove the homeless from public view. It is vital that people are aware of when the homeless community is both present in and absent from society.

Over the course of the nearly two hours I was on outreach Thursday night, my team came across only five people, a record low for me. I was introduced to outreach last September through Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere, a student group I now co-lead that aims to end homelessness in Rhode Island. We have over 75 students doing nighttime outreach in downtown Providence, South Side and Pawtucket six nights a week. This week, the teams responsible for outreach in Downtown and South Side, which often see a steady number of people, were all asking themselves the same question: Where have all the homeless folks gone? At this time, we can only speculate as to whether or not these low numbers are here to stay, but in my experience, efforts to transform the area surrounding Kennedy Plaza and Burnside Park into lively hubs for commerce have meant increased policing and the criminalization of homelessness, particularly in down town Providence.http://www.providencejournal.com/news/20170616/enforcement-of-downtown-smoking-ban-will-take-time-and-signage

This past summer, the Providence City Council — in conjunction with the former mayor of Providence and owner of Paolino Properties, Joe Paolino — tried to tackle the “homeless issue” by banning smoking in Kennedy Plaza. According to WPRI 12 Eyewitness News, Paolino, who has business interests downtown, was strongly in favor of the ban on smoking and said it was about “fairness.”  In 2015, a similar ordinance was implemented, banning smoking in all city parks, including Burnside Park, which sits beside Kennedy Plaza. (Homeless advocates say the smoking ban in Burnside Park drove the homeless from the park and into Kennedy Plaza.)

While promoted as a public health measure, the smoking ban actually functions as a way to encourage or “force” the homeless presence out of Kennedy Plaza and into less visible parts of the city, such as Broad Street in South Providence. When the ordinance was sent to Mayor Jorge Elorza earlier this year for approval, he vetoed it, writing in his veto message that though this “ordinance is ostensibly about smoking, its true target is the homeless community.” In an 11-2 vote, the council passed the ordinance, overriding his veto.

Last year while on outreach, my team came across a group of about four police officers that had stopped some folks along the Providence River. We stayed in the area in case they were homeless and being harassed, and approached the officers when the interaction had finished. While the folks they approached hadn’t been homeless, we learned that the officers were not from Providence, but rather from neighboring cities in Rhode Island, which certainly can affect the dynamics between those policing and those being policed. The lead officer that night, though informed of our work, said as we departed, “No one wants to see the homeless downtown … no offense.”

Frankly, the homeless don’t want to be out there either; the list of Rhode Islanders awaiting housing is growing. For the many who have waited years to receive housing vouchers from local agencies, the wait continues as they and their case workers attempt to find a landlord willing to accept them as tenants. For many landlords, agreeing to house homeless individuals may seem risky, due to their financial insecurity and negative stereotypes surrounding homelessness, such as the idea that all homeless people suffer from addiction. Therefore, despite the vouchers (and at times because of them), landlords sometimes discriminate against the homeless. And this housing discrimination makes it vastly harder for them to get off the streets.

It is our responsibility as members of the Rhode Island community to pay attention to and resist the deliberate push of homeless folks out of visible spaces and into marginalized communities. The homeless deserve to be seen and to occupy public spaces as they see fit. Their visibility mustn’t be denied because it makes other people uncomfortable.

Mariela Pichardo ’20 is a site leader at Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere, and can be reached at mariela_pichardo@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.


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