Late in January, on a day that hit zero degrees with wind chill, I stomped my feet to keep warm outside of the Bank of America on Westminster Street. I was about to go on what I can only describe as a “Tour of Homelessness” downtown. Six other students and I had spent the week learning about homelessness in Rhode Island by visiting organizations engaged in homelessness advocacy. That afternoon, our guide, John Freitas, took us along the canal and through the backstreets of downtown Providence while pointing out spots in the city that are significant to folks currently facing homelessness. John himself experienced homelessness from 2006 to 2011. He is now housed and serves on the executive committee of the Rhode Island Homelessness Advocacy Project (RIHAP), an organization that runs nightly outreach to those staying out on the streets and also liaises between people experiencing homelessness and legislators or large organizations like Crossroads emergency housing. That day, although we all meant well, I felt I was essentially a “homelessness tourist,” as though people who are homeless were something to be put on display, looked at, catalogued, and then stepped away from.
Tours can only happen in public spaces, or in private spaces with explicit permission. All the spaces we entered were public, but many felt very private and we weren’t asking anyone for permission. In one spot, I noted a needle and bloody rag left behind from the night before. Just as these spaces skirted the line between public and private, we skirted the line between well-meaning idealistic college students and intruders. Although we were only hoping to learn more about homelessness, at points we were traipsing through someone’s bedroom or living room. The experience of homelessness, which already often lacks privacy, was again put out in the open and offered up for show.
Homelessness outreach initiatives constantly run into issues of privacy, physically and otherwise. It can be difficult to make out the line between being helpful and being probing. Don Boucher of Riverwood Mental Health Services takes issue with the VI-SPDAT, a questionnaire given to people experiencing homelessness that determines which services they are eligible for. He believes some of the questions are too personal. One asks about sexual history, another about having ever been abused. Megan Smith, who runs a mental health outreach program in Providence through ACCESS RI, says that she constantly struggles to interact with people living on the streets without violating their private space: “I know a couple who is sleeping in a generator grate. I always try to approach those places as I would a house, even to the point of knocking on something that I can knock on.”
While it’s unfortunate that I was exposed to the experience of homelessness in a way that may have conflicted with the privacy of some individuals, I’m not sure I would have been able to access those stories otherwise. I still believe this “tour” had a lot to offer. John says he’s thought about the tour set-up, but he’s just doing what he knows—sharing his experiences and perspectives. What John gave us that day was a glimpse into what Providence may look like to a marginalized and silenced population. With Providence downtown changing more rapidly by the day, and with Kennedy Plaza having just opened its doors on January 17, it’s high time we took a serious look into how Providence is serving or failing to serve its people.
We start off along Providence’s signature canal, where you can often find residents walking their dogs in the early morning or rushing downtown to work. Along the canal is also where John has found the same man sleeping for at least two years. The man that stays there says he prefers the patch of grass and chain-link fence to the shelters, which, as John explains, can often be dirty, bug-infested, overcrowded, and witness to violence, sexual assault, and theft.
Shelters have become overwhelmed in the past few years due to a sharp increase in homelessness. From 2007 to 2012, Providence saw a nearly 25 percent increase in individuals seeking shelter. Maintaining decent conditions in shelters has been even more challenging this winter. Bill Stein from Harrington Hall shelter says that recently, they have resorted to cramming extra mattresses into every space possible.
Kennedy Plaza Bus Terminal
The spiffy new Kennedy Plaza bus station just opened its doors on January 17, 2015. We go to take a look inside and are greeted by several signs taped to the doors announcing: “NO PUBLIC RESTROOMS AVAILABLE.” Just like that, in all caps. John says that simply finding a place to use the bathroom can be challenging at best and humiliating at worst. He tells me that those cute cafés we just passed would be nice enough to let me in for the restroom, but they wouldn’t have taken a second look at him when he was homeless. Inside the bus station, a bit of construction was being finished off in a corner. There was caution tape around the construction area but on the other end of the building, two meager benches built into the wall were also taped off. “Why do they have those roped off?” I ask John. He responds, “They don’t want folks sitting around in here.”
Just as we exit the station, a man in a worn-out pea coat holding a coffee cup approaches John. The lid of his cup is dirty with coffee that splashes every time his hand shakes from shivering. This man is homeless and must know John is connected to resources. They chat about where he can find a shelter to stay in that night. Right next to the bus terminal, a warm building with plenty of space, this man cannot go in for a break from the cold. He turns away from us and continues to walk the streets as he has probably been doing all day.
The rest of the plaza is still under construction. John notes that many of the old public benches where he and others used to congregate to share information or just chat are missing. The new benches differ from the old ones in a significant way: they are segmented with armrests, making it impossible to lie down. In the descriptions of Kennedy Plaza’s revitalization, RIPTA mentions the need for a “safe space” and “safety concerns” seven times. This may explain another new feature of the Plaza: a set of several surveillance cameras operated by local police.
“Welcoming” is also listed as a goal on the website. When the construction is finished, the plaza will feature a new café with small tables. This space welcomes people who will buy an espresso and linger before heading to one of the nearby linen napkin restaurants. John, however, says Kennedy Plaza is, “indifferent to the people it serves and their needs.” He says he resents the planners of the Plaza because they didn’t consider how to serve the most vulnerable citizens. Randall Rose, of the RIPTA Riders Alliance agrees that renovations were pushed by wealthy businesses in the area and were in part intended to “get the homeless people and low-income working people out of Kennedy Plaza.”
Smith says that since the new construction of Kennedy Plaza, she has heard many more accounts of people who are homeless or look homeless being asked to leave the area.
Walking away from the plaza now, we dodge men in dark green uniforms pushing brass luggage carts and sleek black cars pulling up to the Biltmore Hotel. John stops to tell us a story. A few Januaries ago, while on nighttime outreach, a student found a woman with her baby walking around Kennedy Plaza. She asked the woman if she had somewhere warm to go and the woman responded that she had just gone into the lobby of the Biltmore to warm up, but the concierge had thrown her and her child out into the cold because they were not staying in the hotel.
It’s getting chilly so John ducks off the main drag and into an enclosed alleyway I’d never noticed before. I note that it feels much warmer here. John says he brought us here on purpose. He knows this spot because it’s good for getting a break from the cold.
The alleyway is behind a restaurant. While we’re chatting there, the workers stare at us strangely from the kitchen windows. I can only imagine how much icier those looks would have been if I had not been a well-kempt, young, white female wearing Sorel boots. John tells us that once, when he and his partner Barbara were homeless, they had come by some extra money and decided to go for a sit-down meal in one of the restaurants downtown. They entered, sat down with some of their bags tucked beneath the table, and tried to get the attention of the waitress. Chatting in the back with the bartender, she completely ignored John and Barbara. When John or Barbara waved for her attention, she would look away. After 20 minutes of this insulting refusal of service, John and Barbara left.
Providence Public Library
Next to all these large companies and condos, Providence Public Library at least looks like a friendly face. As we walk by, John says people who are homeless are allowed in, but they can’t bring any bags with them. That’s a tricky feat when you can’t store things at shelters and have to carry all your possessions with you at all times.
The library officially has this bag policy for security reasons, and say that they apply it universally to all visitors. However, this policy’s implementation is typically left up to the discretion of the guard at the door. A security personnel at the library told me that bringing in suitcases or luggage bags would not be a problem, but that trash bags may not be allowed. When pressed for a reason, he said they weren’t sturdy and could possibly split and spill their contents in the library.
Libraries are maybe one of the greatest public service achievements. Open to anyone, they provide access to literature, the news, and internet, among other resources. When the homeless community is turned away from the library door, they are also shut out from all those services.
Walking briskly past Regency Plaza (we’re all freezing by now—but no one is about to complain), I notice the Gourmet Heaven sitting at one end of the apartment complex. I immediately think of something a formerly homeless woman recently told me. One day, near Regency Plaza, two local university students approached her and offered her a sandwich. They wanted to ask her a few questions for an interview and suggested sitting on the steps outside Gourmet Heaven. She told them she was happy to answer questions, but that she couldn’t sit outside the store. They looked confused and said it would be perfectly fine, but she was adamant that she couldn’t sit there. The two kids didn’t get it.
She explained that the students would have been completely left alone, but if Gourmet Heaven had seen a homeless person sitting on their stoop, they would have come out immediately and told her to leave.
We end our trip back near Kennedy Plaza at the bus stops. “Alright,” John says, “you want to meet homeless people? Here we are.” This feels bizarre, we are approaching this exchange as if those who experience homeless aren’t just other residents, but another species entirely. I think John kind of wants to challenge us to feel uncomfortable.
John exchanges greetings with two men sitting at one of the stops. We all chat as a group for a bit. One man is young, early twenties. He was just released from jail a few days ago but without anywhere to go. He’s in a shelter now, he says he wants to look for work. He says he was “kind of” given resources. The other man is staying at Crossroads Shelter, he says it’s full to the brim. Another man who was standing near us also joins in the conversation. John says he, too, is homeless.
John told me later that he tries not to make this tour, “like a trip to the zoo,” and one of the ways he does this is by actually interacting with folks. I saw that, but I still felt like an intruder at that bus stop.
Buses are vital to the day-to-day necessities of people who experience homelessness. After getting booted out of the shelters early in the morning, it’s a bus to somewhere that will let you stay inside, then a bus to somewhere that serves free lunch, a bus to an appointment, and quickly one more bus back to the shelter to get in line and secure a bed for the night.
John says if you ride RIPTA often, you’ve already met the homeless community of Providence.
A few weeks ago, newly-elected Mayor Jorge Elorza cut the ribbon for the new Kennedy Plaza. The Providence Journal quoted him as saying, “There are so many improvements that have been made, and these improvements will not only serve the needs of our commuters but also create a community space that’s welcome to everyone.” I might once have applauded that statement with the rest of the crowd, but after spending the afternoon with John, I can’t swallow this line.
Providence is often lauded for the reconstruction of its downtown. Many would point to new business and attractive avenues as evidence of a job well done, but actually, I don’t think reconstruction has been done very well. The ‘revitalization’ of downtown Providence has bought into the all-too-common failure of urban redevelopment: prioritizing the interests of business owners and the wealthy while leaving behind and often purposefully excluding lower income community members. Kennedy Plaza and Providence downtown has recently made itself only more welcoming to an elite subset of Providence residents by creating a very un-welcoming environment for many others, especially those who experience homelessness.
Explaining how these development projects were carried out, Rose Randall said: “Media and politicians hyped this redevelopment as good for Providence. People were deceived, they thought they were making their community better.” Politicians, development agencies, and the general public are too often guilty of ignorance and neglect when it comes to the needs of marginalized populations. I do not suggest every resident take a “tour” to become more conscious, but, as Providence continues to develop in the coming years, we need to have a much more critical eye when examining how our spaces are being transformed to fit or ignore the needs of certain segments of the population. (The I-195 redevelopment project should be watched closely).
My favorite place to view Providence is from the canal, leaning over the railing. On a sunny day, the clear water that now runs through what used to be a trench of weeds and tossed trash reflects a sparkling Providence Skyline. I have hope for where Providence is going in the future, but, if not watched carefully, the inclusive “One Providence” vision Elorza promoted will become like the reflections of buildings I see in the canal: a wobbly sham.
ERIN WEST B’18 is just starting to understand how Providence fails to serve its people.