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PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island – Two months after a court ruled in favor of allowing a “tent city” in a city park, advocates say Rhode Island has yet to deal with its homeless problem.
“There is no reason why a human being should have to freeze to death under a bridge,” said John Joyce, 47, who was homeless when the first tent city was set up in Providence in January, but has since moved into a studio apartment. “There is a solution to the homeless problem here. It’s called affordable housing.”
Joyce and Megan Smith, 21, decided to set up the first tent community in Providence after Paul Langlais, 56, was found dead under a bridge in early January. An autopsy said he died of heart disease.
“Whatever the autopsy said, the police told me Paul was frozen solid,” Joyce said.
Between January and September the camps changed locations a couple of times as the authorities pushed to move them on, arguing that they did not have the right to camp on city land. Eventually on Sept. 21 a judge ordered that the tented community had to pack up and leave. At their peak, more than 100 homeless people were camped on city property.
“We felt there was safety in numbers,” said Smith, a student. “We were handing out coffee and blankets, but it was easy for the authorities to ignore people when they were alone. The state didn’t want to recognize the scale of the problem.”
Edward Therrien, 52, has been a chef for 30 years but after being laid off he ended up homeless in March and moved into one of the camps.
“Until we became a community, it was a question of out of sight, out of mind,” he said. “Individually, the authorities could treat us as they wanted, so banding together helped us restore some of our dignity.”
John Freitas, 56, who was leader of one the tent cities called Camp Runamuck, said that by banding together, they had forced the issue of homelessness into the open. Freitas used to work in manufacturing and his partner, Barbara Kalil, 50, was a nurse, but they both lost their jobs in 2005 and have been homeless since 2006.
“We were a public embarrassment for the city,” he said. “I was told by officials that we were a black eye on the state.”
Joyce and the others said that the core issue that must be overcome is that the homeless are treated as if they have no rights.
“If you walk down the street you have a right to do so, but a homeless person can be arrested for loitering,” Joyce said. “The American constitution guarantees your rights, but they only count if you have somewhere to live.”
“The moment you’re homeless, a different set of rules apply,” he added.
Photo by Brian Snyder