tent cities in Providence

by by Jesse Strecker

For much of this past summer, a tent city named Camp Run-a-Muck stood out like a sore thumb in the Point Street bridge’s iconic view of downtown Providence. It stood as a potent exception Michael Harrington’s rule presented in his 1962 work, The Other America: “That the poor are invisible is one of the most important things about them.” Camp Run-a-Muck and its sister community across the river, Hope City, forced the struggles of the Providence area’s homeless population, as well as local governments’ continued attempts to disband them, into a rare spotlight that illuminated the pages of The New York Times and Al Jazeera English.

That’s not to say that Run-a-Muck was a biting image of destitution among the shining lights of civilized activity. The most striking thing about the camp was not the violent nights of the Providence Journal accounts, but rather the incredible order and seeming peacefulness radiating from the neat paths cut between tents and the merrymaking of its residents. Coming down the end of Water Street, poi balls drew attention coolers, umbrellas, and pink flamingos. Run-a-Muck and Hope City alerted Providence, as well as the national audience, to the fragility of working-class stability and the long-standing insecurity of the long-term homeless. But they also presented a remarkable model for an alternative to the present shelter system.

Coming together
Camp Run-a-Muck was one of two encampments that began to grow under abandoned interstate overpasses in Providence last spring. Hope City, was founded in January under the Crawford Street Bridge, inspired by Paul Langlois, a long-time homeless resident of Providence, who died of compounding cold and heart disease in the very spot where a group of dedicated organizers set up camp. They sought to provide a supportive community for those dispossessed from local shelters. Word of mouth attracted a diverse collection of couples, singles, a rapidly growing number of former professionals, and those more accustomed to homelessness.

The tent cities stirred a rare media sensation that prompted a deluge of donations from sympathizers. As food, clothing and other supplies rolled in, organizers from local shelters came to the communities looking for extra jackets and shoes, shocked when donation directors had first-aid kits to offer.

Some who work with shelters and social service providers have criticized this charitable outpouring as merely a response to the media’s sensationalism, arguing that these resources could be better used by more established venues, whose centrality make them the best candidates for donations.

For a moment, however, these communities offered a profound alternative to the tenuous lifestyle of the shelters, one that went beyond easing curfew rules and affording the option to live with a loved one. During a brief break on the courthouse steps at the latest battle, Barbara Kalil, a resident of Run-a-Muck from its earliest days, reflected, “When you’re just coming and going, you don’t care about what that other person is doing. When you’re organized, and you’re like a family, things run much more smoothly.”

While shelters ask occupants to leave the streets—and their partners too—before dinner time to ensure a bed for the night, Camp Run-a-Muck merely asks its members to participate in shared tasks in order to hold their places.

While the camp allows residents to find a place to store their things under the guarding eyes of neighbors, at local shelters, Kalil attests, “you better expect to have your belongings stolen.” Both tent cities have an elected leadership that enforces rules regarding who can stay in the camps and make sure residents put in their fair share of labor. Run-a-Muck’s Edward Therrien spoke to this structure, telling residents, “if you disagree with the committee, bring it up, say something, we’ll talk about it.”

In contrast, Todd Hollin, a resident of the city’s largest shelter, Crossroads RI, wrote in a recent editorial in Providence’s homeless paper, Street Sights, that neither Crossroads nor the Urban League, another large shelter, provide such avenues for feedback. This is in spite of ‘program assurance’ laws that make government funding contingent on monthly open meetings between clients and shelters.

You don’t have to go home, but…
Forced relocations followed by unwelcome receptions have caused both tent city communities to shrink. After a cordial request from local sheriffs in early August that residents at Camp Run-a-Muck’s original location near the Point Street bridge pack up and leave so the abandoned overpass could be demolished, some 30 residents migrated across the river to a spot under the George Washington Bridge in East Providence. As soon as the dispossessed set foot on the unfamiliar plot, directors of the state Departments of Transportation and Administration filed a complaint in Superior Court accusing residents of Camp Run-a- Muck’s new location, as well as the inhabitants still living at Hope City, of trespassing on DOTowned land.

The camps’ residents see the accusation of trespassing on unused, publicly owned land as a way for the state to say, “We don’t want you here.” In a move Kalil called “hypocritical” given the “filthy and overcrowded” conditions of the state’s shelters, public officials have repeatedly criticized the communities for lacking clean water, proper waste disposal and sanitation, even after the East Providence Health Department inspected Run-a-Muck’s second location and found their portable toilets and sink with fresh water to be adequate.

While the DOT’s claims that concrete may fall and injure someone living under the bridge’s makeshift shelter, John Joyce, one of the organizers who first set up tents at Hope City, sees the move as little more than a pretext. “It’s unfortunate they had to pull things like that out of the hat to try to kick out ten people who just wanted to have a roof over their head and be safe in numbers.”

In an attempt to thwart the homeless organizers’ attempts to forge a path that didn’t involve the existing shelter system, city lawyers worked with the DOT to evict residents from Camp Run-a-Muck’s new location in East Providence, as well as force out the remaining occupants of Hope City. They succeeded August 7th in Superior Court.

No Direction Home
Options were few for the dedicated movers whose memories of complaining neighbors and dislocation were fresh, but the occupants of Camp Run-a-Muck’s second location in East Providence managed to split and form two camps—one on a plot of city-owned land near Roger Williams Medical Center in Providence, the other on privately-owned land off Westminster Street. Both locations afford the resources of downtown Providence, including access to case managers and soup kitchens.

The city continues to insist that any encampment on city-owned land will not be tolerated. In contrast, the private landowner is offering residents willing and able to abide by rules against drinking and drugs a haven while searching for work and a home.

Those formerly residing under the Crawford Street Bridge in what was known as Hope City haven’t been quite as lucky. Chief William ‘Eagle Heart’ Greene of the Seakonke Wampanoag tribe offered the residents space on a stretch of land in Cumberland that he argues should be under the tribe’s jurisdiction.

Shortly after move-in day, local officials told the new residents that they had to leave the space, citing its Environmental Protection Agency status as a Superfund hazardous waste site. And while some of the community’s members have been successful finding apartments with the help of social service providers, the fate of those who continue to defend their right to keep their communities put remains to be seen.