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Homeless camp tenants battle for a no-man's-land

The lot of land Mark Falugo's family owns is nearly deserted during the day, but the signs of human habitation are obvious. The downtown property holds about a dozen tents, the dwellings of 18 homeless men and women.

During the daylight hours, the inhabitants of Provitents — as the encampment is known — go about their business. Some work, and others look for jobs. They go to Crossroads, the state's largest service provider for the homeless, to take showers. One 19-year-old goes to local concerts to sell his artwork, dreamscapes created entirely with spray paint.

But after only two weeks of existence, the tent city has already met with resistance from local residents and business owners concerned about the Westminster Street property. Charles J. Falugo, Inc. — the family-run corporation that owns the land — has been cited by the city because the property is not zoned for recreational camping, and a hearing into the tent community's fate began Thursday.

But Falugo, who gave the group permission to use his family's property, has become their advocate, and he refuses to give in. Since the controversy arose over the tents, the Barrington resident has been spending long hours at the encampment in solidarity. Why?

"Compassion,"  Falugo said. "They've been conditioned to lose every fight they come up against."

Providence versus Provitents

The series of events that brought the lot's current residents in contact with Falugo — who had started volunteering at the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless just a few days before — began with an eviction, similar to the one they are facing again.

Provitents is, in fact, a settlement that splintered off a larger tent city, Camp Runamuck, which until recently was located beneath an I-95 overpass near Fish Co.

A decision by Rhode Island's Superior Court gave the residents of Runamuck until Sept. 8 to disband. They split into two groups, Camp Runamuck II and Provitents.

The lawyer for the tent city residents introduced Richard Jackson, the leader of Provitents, to Falugo, who offered the land as a place to stay.

Almost immediately, they began to clear the grass on Falugo's land — it was as "tall as the port-a-john," Jackson said. The members of Provitents moved onto the property within days, during Labor Day weekend.

"I spoke to the neighbors first," Falugo said. When they had no objections, he moved ahead.

But the West Broadway Neighborhood Association began to receive calls from residents.

"Some are concerned about the welfare of the people," said Kari Lang from the association. "Some are concerned that they're on a city lot that doesn't have facilities for the people."

Lang brought the settlement to the attention of the city of Providence. "I called the city because the tent city is in our neighborhood," she said. "Neighbors had called concerned about it, so I called the city to see what they were doing about the situation."

Late last week, Falugo received a subpoena to appear at yesterday's hearing, where he was informed that his lot was not zoned for "recreational tents."

Later, the city's case was put on hold because of a procedural error: Papers were served to the wrong member of Falugo's family, he said. The hearing will resume next Thursday.

"The lady with the Mercedes?

 "Not every member of Provitents has been to a homeless shelter, or intends to. Deborah, who became homeless in mid-July, has heard too many stories about local shelters — their filth and overcrowdedness, their drug addicts and violence — from the camp's other inhabitants to consider going to a shelter.

Deborah, who asked that her last name not be used because her teenage daughter does not know she is homeless, said she was left with numerous medical bills when her mother died in May 2008. Her mother suffered from cancer for about a decade before her hospitalization, Deborah said, and died as a consequence of her illness, which was compounded by kidney failure.

Deborah stopped working during her mother's illness, and the hospital expenses and the funeral costs left her destitute. She sold her home last summer to pay the medical bills, and began to stay with family members.

But this summer, she found herself with nowhere else to go.

Initially, she slept in her car and frequented Roger Williams Park to read, write and walk. But after a few days, she noticed a church nearby.

"It just piqued my curiosity," she said. "I went in, and I found it was a soup kitchen. I said,

‘Geez, I'm not working right now — can I possibly volunteer and help out?'"

After a couple of weeks, she heard about Camp Runamuck from other volunteers at the soup kitchen, and she visited to look around.

"It was strange," she said. "It was different."

Still, Deborah, who, despite her  college education had run out of options, needed a place to stay. Though she felt out of place, she moved into Camp Runamuck.

"‘What the hell is she doing here?'" she said, recalling the reactions of some people. "‘The lady with the Mercedes?'"

Deborah has returned to her job, working intermittently. She has found a potential home to rent as well, a small cottage in Barrington.

But the months she has spent in a tent, moving from encampment to encampment in Providence, have transformed her perspective on her local community — and committed her to a future of advocating for the homeless.

"It's been a life lesson," Deborah said. "I look at life differently. I look at people differently."

An uncertain future

Mark Falugo's generosity may have given Deborah and others a temporary harbor, but the larger problem she faces is one that will persist no matter the result of next Thursday's hearing.

Deborah said she thinks Provitents' current battle against the city has "nothing to do with the tents. It has to do with the homeless problem in Rhode Island."

She called the state's system of services for its homeless population "obsolete."

"It doesn't work," she said. "Why can we not catch people before they hit rock bottom?"

Brenda Clement, the executive director of Housing Action Coalition of Rhode Island, said tents were not the solution, noting that support for programs and policies that create long-term housing is necessary.

"We simply don't have enough affordable housing units for very low-income people," Clement said.

Rhode Island has just been awarded federal stimulus funding for homeless prevention and rapid re-housing, she added.

But "we've clearly got lots more work to do," Clement said, such as restoring funding to the Neighborhood Opportunities Program, Rhode Island's only state program to create affordable housing for low-income people.

Meanwhile, the days wear on for Provitents residents. They survive on donated food and on one another's companionship.

"I'm not alone," said Kevin, another Provitents inhabitant, who also asked that his last name be withheld. "I'm with people that I can talk with, I can cry with, I can reminisce with."



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