Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project
Direct Action For Rights & Equality
Homeless Bill Of Rights Defense Committee
Contested Terrain – Transforming Kennedy Plaza
Community Groups Reject Paolino’s Proposals, Offer Alternatives
Providence – In August when Joe Paolino, in his new role as President of the Providence Downtown Improvement District (DID), convened a broad table of law enforcement, homeless and social service providers, local businesses and community members to discuss concerns about Kennedy Plaza there was real hope that his agenda was about transforming Kennedy Plaza into a vibrant space for all of Providence’s residents. Four weeks later community groups and many of Providence’s homeless and social service providers are walking away from the table with the assertion that the whole process was merely a “show” for the true agenda, the removal of homeless and poor people from downtown.
On Wednesday, in front of Paolino Properties and other local businesses in Kennedy Plaza, members of the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project (RIHAP), Homeless Bill of Rights Defense Group and DARE (Direct Action for Rights and Equality) announced their opposition to Paolino’s proposals and offered their own vision of a transformed Kennedy Plaza. Releasing Reclaiming Our Public Spaces, the group offered recommendations on how to make Kennedy Plaza be a true “public” space for all.
Dr. Eric Hirsch, Professor of Sociology at Providence College and a member of the Homeless Bill of Rights Defense Committee pointed out that Paolino’s proposals were akin to the flawed “broken windows” policies that have been discredited around the country. The “broken windows” policies were based on an idea that allowing minor offenses like littering, panhandling, loitering, or washing car windshields was an open invitation for more serious crimes. They argued that these “broken windows” were the real reasons for the rise of violent and serious property offenses.
“The problem with basing policy on this “broken window” idea is that there was no evidence to back it up,” stated Hirsch. “Unfortunately, although the idea has been completely discredited, police departments and city officials around the country continue to base policy decisions on this flawed proposal.”
“Criminalization is not a solution to homelessness,” added Roger Williams University School of Law Professor and Assistant Dean Andrew Horwitz. “It is incredibly cruel to those experiencing homelessness, dehumanizing the individuals and making it harder to connect to advocates and services. It also costs the system more by spending taxpayer dollars on court costs and incarcerations rather than on housing, medical care, and other long-term solutions.”
The group presented an alternative vision to Paolino’s proposal, a vision of a transformed Kennedy Plaza that embraces all its community members regardless of race, age or class standing. As stated in the report, “It is our deeply held belief that our city is not owned by any one constituency: it is not the business owners’ city nor the wealthy’s city: it belongs to rich, poor, and middle class, to employee and employer, to homeless and housed. Each of us has so much to offer in creating a vibrant community. In order for this potential to be reached, we have a responsibility to create a city that is welcoming and sustaining for us all, particularly those most in need of public amenities.”
The group presented recommendations in three major areas:
DARE member Malchus Mills added, “We cannot simply sweep out the poverty that many just don’t want to see. The environment and challenging conditions many people in Kennedy Plaza face are a direct result of decades of poor policy choices by the state and the city."
Advocates also highlighted the fact that Rhode Island was the first state in the country to enact a “Homeless Bill of Rights” formally banning discrimination against Rhode Islanders experiencing homelessness and affirming their equal access to housing, employment and public services and believe that Paolino’s idea of targeting of people based on their housing status is illegal.
The Rhode Island law asserts that Rhode Islanders experiencing homelessness have the right to use public parks, public transportation and public buildings, “in the same manner as any other person and without discrimination on the basis of his or her housing status.”
Nationally, there is increasing recognition of the need for cities to shift away from criminalization and toward a right to housing. In its report No Safe Place, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty details the ways in which criminalizing ordinances are damaging both to individuals experiencing homelessness and to the cities that enact them. It also found that, despite a lack of affordable housing and shelter space, cities across the country are essentially making it illegal to be homeless with laws that outlaw life-sustaining acts, such as eating and sleeping, in public spaces.
Key findings/conclusions from the report are:
The Seattle University School of Law recently published a series of briefs exploring the monetary costs of criminalization and placing these laws squarely within the shameful tradition of Jim Crow, Anti-Okie, and Ugly laws. The Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest arguing that it unconstitutionally punishes homelessness to make it a crime for people to sleep in public when there is insufficient shelter.
The Homeless Bill of Rights sets an important foundation for Opening Doors Rhode Island, the state’s plan to end homelessness, which states as a core value that “there are
no ‘homeless people,’ but rather people who have lost their homes who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Opening Doors Rhode Island outlines a plan that significantly transforms the provision of services to Rhode Islanders experiencing homelessness. Consistent with the new federal plan to end homelessness, the plan seeks to sharply decrease the numbers of people experiencing homelessness and the length of time people spend homeless.
“Rhode Island has the potential to be a model for how to end homelessness,” concluded Barbara Freitas, Director of RIHAP. “We can do this by collaborating to provide safe, affordable, permanent housing and engaging with and educating our community. It is not done by harassing and further marginalizing our city’s most vulnerable neighbors.”
Homeless Bill Or Rights Defense Committee