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Rhode Island community members turn to mutual aid, direct outreach during pandemic

Grassroots fundraising supports marginalized communities

“All Services Free & Confidential,” reads a corner of the black-and-white handout being distributed to Kennedy Plaza passersby on a chilly March afternoon. The other side of the printed graphic advertises resources ranging from HIV testing to job application support. In spite of growing winds — a hallmark of New England winter — paperweights pin the flyers to a folding table.

Bundled in parkas and scarves, four community members sit at a makeshift booth. A red minivan is parked on the walkway beside them, its side door open, revealing cardboard boxes of supplies. Occasionally, someone comes up to the booth to chat and walks away with resources or pamphlets in-hand.

Kennedy Plaza, a commuter hub for the state’s bus service, garners foot traffic from residents as far away as Newport. But it serves another purpose for people experiencing homelessness in Rhode Island, who, left with few places to turn, make do with nearby benches and brave the cold weather for another night’s rest.

The pandemic has hit at-risk populations like those experiencing homelessness particularly hard, as they now face nation-wide financial instability and public health concerns. But in a time when outreach has become increasingly challenging, members of the community have turned to supporting one another directly.

The booth at Kennedy Plaza, part of the harm reduction services offered by an organization known as Project Weber/RENEW, is just one example of direct community outreach used to support vulnerable populations across the state.

For PWR, community support means providing for the health and safety of community members without judgement. Haley Carbonneau, PWR’s project coordinator for Kennedy Plaza, emphasized that, as part of the organization’s harm reduction, “everything is free and confidential.”

PWR’s street-based outreach aims to increase safety among drug-using populations. For example, the group offers free Naloxone, a medication used to counter the effects of opioid overdose.

The organization also provides fentanyl-testing strips so individuals can test their drugs for trace amounts of the deadly opioid before usage in a time when fentanyl is growing in consumption nationwide. Additionally, the organization offers a needle exchange program that provides users with clean needles in order to prevent the spread of diseases like Hepatitis C.

By paying attention to community needs and prioritizing local safety in their outreach, PWR offers Rhode Islanders attainable solutions without fear of judgement, Carbonneau said. When accessing these resources, “nobody ever has to worry about getting in trouble.” 

Similarly, community members have turned to grassroots fundraising to provide for one another in a time of unprecedented change. Rooted in the work of Black organizers and the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, one community support phenomenon has been revitalized in the social media mainstream this past year: mutual aid.

Mutual aid involves members of a community using their own funding and resources to support one another, based on a desire for political change. The work of mutual aid organizations “focus on dismantling injustice,” Stefanie Kaufman ’17, executive director of Rhode Island-founded mental health advocacy and support organization Project Let’s Erase the Stigma, wrote in an email to The Herald.

Whereas many national charity organizations “give to look good” and wait for “grants (and) donations (to) come in to take action,” mutual aid funds “address and understand the root of systemic oppression and inequity” and “use whatever resources are available,” Kaufman wrote. Combined, these factors allow mutual aid to reach communities in a way larger charity organizations cannot, they added.

“Mutual aid projects also need to be cautious of replicating the same power dynamics in (national) charities,” Kaufman wrote. “We must be careful not to engage in saviorism, self-congratulation and paternalism.”

Additionally, Project LETS is “led by and for folks with lived experience of mental illness/madness, Disability, trauma and neurodivergence,” according to its website. Since the onset of the pandemic, disabled and mentally ill populations have faced a disruption of community support and, for some, greater health risks should they contract COVID-19.

These issues ring particularly true in Providence — a city recently ranked as one of the worst cities in the nation for people with disabilities.

“Disabled folks are experiencing crises and are concerned they will no longer have access to the things they need to be well,” including medication, community and therapy, Kaufman wrote. “With regards to mental health, there is a serious crisis approaching. Social factors like layoffs, houselessness and isolation are the perfect storm of suicide triggers; and we know that marginalized communities are more vulnerable.”

In 2020, Project LETS created a Disability Justice Mutual Aid Network in Providence that has since re-distributed more than $26,000 in community funds to “disabled, neurodivergent and immunocompromised community members,” Kaufman wrote, offering “support related to getting groceries, safely cleaning houses (and) transportation.”

Through their direct community support, mutual aid funds aim to combat wider legacies of cyclical poverty and discrimination.

“When we say solidarity not charity,” Kaufman wrote, “we mean building a sense of unity through shared lived experience, but also growing through political education.”

Other communities are predisposed to greater risk due to the nature of their work. With limits on in-person interaction and rises in unemployment stifling financial opportunities, the Providence sex industry is especially vulnerable during this time, according to Bella Robinson, founder and executive director of Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics RI. Robinson’s organization has advocated for the rights and safety of sex workers throughout the state since 2009.

Robinson believes that the conditions sex workers face today are a product of the broader criminalization of the sex industry, with laws that “dump (sex workers) at a crossroads and leave them to live in poverty.”

Community-driven fundraising plays a large part in COYOTE RI’s outreach. In 2020, over 80 percent of the organization's annual income went to providing direct support to Rhode Island-based sex workers.

Other initiatives the organization has undertaken in the past year include providing jail support, case management and health supplies to more than 100 incarcerated workers, as well as distributing condoms, hygiene kits and narcotic overdose treatment kits to the local community. In 2020, the organization raised an additional $45,000 in pandemic relief grants for Rhode Island sex workers.

Robinson, who has more than 30 years of experience as a sex worker, also expressed that the inaccessibility of federal funding for sex workers has created more obstacles in the industry.

To offer her community financial support, Robinson worked with state organizations to secure and distribute funding to local street-based sex workers in the form of grocery store gift cards.

Despite the recent revitalization of community-driven aid across the nation, local organizers are in agreement: These issues predate the pandemic.

“I think COVID has definitely exacerbated problems, but these problems have been around,” Carbonneau said. While the pandemic has heightened substance use and homelessness alike, “we would be down here (doing outreach at Kennedy Plaza), COVID or not.”


Jack Walker

Jack Walker served as senior editor of multimedia, social media and post- magazine for The Herald’s 132nd Editorial Board. Jack is an archaeology and literary arts concentrator from Thurmont, Maryland who previously covered the Grad School and staff and student labor beats.

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