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WOONSOCKET â€“ Acting on orders from City Hall, the police began dispersing a group of homeless men living in tents alongside the Blackstone River this week.
Human Resources Director Matt Wojcik said the city would have continued to tolerate the camp were it not for repeated complaints of disruptive behavior and violence. The police have one report on file of a fight on May 28 involving two men armed with bats and knives.
The city, working with Family Resources Community Action Program, has done everything it can to find alternative placements for the men, but after more than two months that avenue appears to be exhausted, Wojcik said.
â€śNobody has a cold, hard heart about this,â€ť he said. â€śWeâ€™ve turned over every single stone to offer these people help. Those that are left, theyâ€™re being asked to leave.â€ť
Douglas Lachance runs Jesus Lives Ministries, a husband-and-wife team who use a big red van to ferry hot meals to homeless encampments around the city.
He said the Blackstone River site is just one of several homeless enclaves around the city with a net population of roughly 30 men that he supplies with meals on a regular basis.
There are also a couple of homeless women living in more isolated conditions.
Lachance said nearly all the men are refugees from the Harvest Community Church on North Main Street, which runs an overnight shelter for men from November to April.
Lachance, who used to work at Harvest, says the crackdown on the camp underscores the need for a year-round day shelter in the city, not just for men, but for women as well.
None of the existing shelters in the city will admit single men, period, and many of the would-be clients donâ€™t qualify for other housing assistance because they have criminal records. Women will also be excluded from existing shelters if they have a record, said Lachance.
â€śThe solution to this is we need a day shelter in the city, not just for men, but women,â€ť he said. â€śWhatâ€™s happening here is just a vicious game. The police will move these people from this campsite, and theyâ€™ll just end up in another one.â€ť
Brian Moore, 56, was among the last handful of tent-dwellers still living on a shady plot of damp dirt overlooking the Blackstone River yesterday morning. Just days ago, some 17 men were living on a 500-yard stretch of the river, just north of the Truman Bypass.
Accompanied by a pit bull terrier named Roxy, Moore had two neighbors, including a newcomer from Warwick who said he heard about the camp from personnel at a homeless shelter on Sayles Street.
â€śMy unemployment benefits ran out, thatâ€™s how I became homeless,â€ť said the man, who declined to give his name.
Moore was upset about being asked to leave, saying he and his friends had long ago put some distance between themselves and the other group of men whoâ€™d already been kicked out to avoid getting blamed for their actions. Moore said personnel from Family Resources had come to visit the riverside settlement on a number of occasions, attempting to find alternative shelter for the residents. He said the fire department had also checked out his fire pit, which he uses to keep warm and cook food, to make sure it was safe.
â€śI basically feel like we were given permission to be here as long as were signed up with Family Resources,â€ť he said.
The waterfront digs are as rudimentary as living gets. The men own little but a few cooking utensils, their tents, a few bits of clothing and, perhaps, a sleeping bag.
Donald Hatfield gets around town on a new bicycle he bought at Wal-Mart. It was leaning against a tree, mud splashed on the rims from a recent rainfall.
â€śItâ€™s a Huffy,â€ť he says proudly.
The men may be homeless, but some do have a steady income. Moore says he gets a disability check because he has diabetes, but he spends most of it on food.
Moore freely admits that when it comes to emergency housing, the most challenging hurdle he faces is his criminal past. Because of it, he was told to leave his wifeâ€™s apartment in a private, government-subsidized complex in the downtown area several months ago, after she landed in a nursing home.
Yesterday morning, Moore and his pals were packing up their meager belongings as Lachance handed out cups of juice, waiting for the police to arrive.
Detective Lt. Eugene Jalette, a spokesman for the police, said residents of camp site were given until 1 p.m. to vacate the premises. They were given several daysâ€™ notice in advance of the deadline.
Jalette said police intend to confiscate tents and other belongings left behind at the site. He said they will be placed in safekeeping until their owners retrieve them.
Wojcik said the city has no plans of interfering with any other homeless encampments elsewhere in the city, unless there is an indication that the occupants pose a danger to themselves or others. He said the city would also act if someone complains of squatters on private property.