Former Mayor of Providence Joseph Paolino Jr. P’17 unveiled his plans for the redevelopment of Kennedy Plaza Wednesday at a closed-door meeting, presenting an ambitious and controversial vision for the future of the downtown district. While Paolino has not served in a governmental capacity for nearly three decades, he wields significant clout in the city. He is board chairman of the Downtown Improvement District and a managing partner of the Providence-based Paolino Properties.
Central to Paolino’s proposal is the relocation of the RIPTA bus terminal from Kennedy Plaza slightly north to the Amtrak train station. With the space from the terminal vacated, Paolino has called for a redesign of the plaza and neighboring Burnside Park to include a number of attractions including an amphitheater, an expanded park and a food court. The proposal comes after weeks of meetings concerning public safety and “quality-of-life-issues” in the downtown area between Paolino and a number of social service organizations, businesses and advocacy groups.
But Paolino has come under fire for some aspects of his proposal that some call anti-homeless. He has taken a hard stance against panhandling, for example, arguing that “some panhandlers have legitimate problems, and some have made it into a business,” in a statement released Sept. 14 at the event. While Paolino has promised that the proposal is a “neutral content ordinance” and that all panhandling, including that of firefighters and little leaguers, will not be allowed, some worry the policy would be selectively enforced against homeless people.
In response to perceived inadequacies in Paolino’s proposal, a number of advocates for the homeless and other activists held a press conference in protest of his plan about an hour before it was to be announced on the front steps of Paolino Properties in Kennedy Plaza.
“Paolino likes to present the work that he’s been doing as a community-based plan,” said Meghan Smith of the Homeless Bill of Rights Defense Committee. “Well, we’re here to say loudly and clearly that nothing could be further from the truth.” From the onset of the groups’ meetings, it was obvious that Paolino had formed his own plan and was not willing to incorporate the opinions of homeless advocacy groups, she said.
In response to Paolino’s proposal, a number of advocacy groups drafted and distributed a document entitled “Reclaiming Our Public Spaces,” which outlined a number of policy recommendations including distributing at least 150 housing vouchers, keeping the RIPTA terminal in Kennedy Plaza and ending police profiling of the homeless and the poor.
“We have a beautiful constitution, which protects people’s rights … including (those of) the poor, the homeless and the drug addicted,” said Andy Horowitz, a law professor at the Roger Williams University School of Law. “Panhandling is a protected right … for the firefighters who want to hold boots out to fundraise, and it’s a protected right for a variety of other folks who some might call ‘less desirable.’”
While speaking at the protest, Horowitz also commended Mayor Jorge Elorza for recognizing the unconstitutionality of previously enforced anti-panhandling ordinances and refusing to impose them moving forward.
“We met in good faith with Mr. Paolino,” said Barbara Freitas, director of the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy project, though “the only reason he invited us together was so that it would look good to the public and to the media,” she added.
“Here’s some wisdom for you, Joe,” Freitas said, “moving the problem somewhere else is still a problem, and if you’re not a part of the solution, then you must be part of the problem.”
Advocates protested outside Paolino Properties for about half an hour, after which they collectively walked to the Rhode Island Convention Center where Paolino’s proposals were supposed to be discussed with community organizations. Upon seeing about 20 individuals enter the center, some with signs bearing slogans like “houses not handcuffs,” security at the center refused to allow access to the meeting.
A tense stalemate ensued between community members and security, especially when a number of individuals dressed in business attire were repeatedly allowed to pass through without a problem. Even after presenting press credentials, reporters from The Herald, Rhode Island Public Radio, the Providence Journal, Providence Business News and RI Future were barred by security from entering the event. Bob Plain, a reporter from RI Future, disclosed that he discovered through back channels that there was a “list” approved by Paolino of specific news organizations that were to be allowed entry.
Reporters and advocates then played a genuine game of cat and mouse with security at the convention center, sneaking through pantries and up escalators in some instances and brazenly pushing past officers in others. Minor altercations erupted on at least two occasions in which officers forcibly removed or restrained individuals trying to gain access to the event. When it became increasingly apparent that no one would be allowed to enter, activists shouted back and forth “Whose city? Our city!” outside of the event doors.
Security gave a number of reasons for excluding the public from the event, including fire safety and capacity issues, though several people who managed to enter reported that there were only about 50 people inside while the capacity for the room was listed as 130 people. Additionally, those gathered were told that only invited individuals would be allowed to enter, but advocates who had been asked to attend and who had been present at previous meetings were nevertheless blocked.
Paolino apologized for the incident later that day, admitting that “there is no logic in keep(ing) press out of a press conference.” While he conceded that security had been instructed to keep out those who would disrupt the event, he said they went too far in keeping out members of the press and advocates who had attended meetings before, regardless of their ideology. Paolino additionally sat down for a 37-minute interview with RI Future in consolation for the organization’s having been blocked.
Paolino has incorporated an expansion of social programs for homeless individuals in his proposal, but some find his approach to issues like panhandling and loitering unacceptable.
“The answer to homelessness is housing, and there’s not enough money for that,” said Diana Burdett, executive director of PICA, a homeless social service organization that had originally participated in negotiations with Paolino. “I don’t agree with the criminalization of homelessness, so I separated myself from the group in order to stand with the people we serve,” she added.
Elorza held a press conference on the front steps of City Hall Sept. 15 in response to debate surrounding the Kennedy Plaza issue. Flanked by state legislators and members from the business and social service communities, Elorza committed to increasing police presence in the plaza and allocating resources for the construction of a day center to serve homeless individuals. He also announced the new PVD GIVES program, which will install “giving meters” throughout the city to encourage people to donate to social programs for the homeless rather than give them the money directly.
“The issues we are addressing today are not unique to Providence. They are complex and multifaceted. But by coming together as a community, we have the opportunity to make lasting change,” Elorza said. “By addressing this issue creatively, collaboratively and compassionately while incorporating best practices from throughout the country, Providence can become a model for the entire nation,” he added.