WOONSOCKET – Jim Walker is neatly dressed, well-groomed and articulate. He's also homeless.
The 51-year-old Bellingham native says he got that way after he was laid off from his job as a car salesman and his unemployment benefits ran out.
Walker spends his nights at Harvest Community Church, located in an old furniture warehouse at 60 North Main St., with an upstairs it has converted into a homeless shelter. The only facility of its kind in the city for homeless, single men, it limits operations to the winter months and provides respite from the cold to a maximum of 28 guests only during the evening hours.
And that’s not enough, says Walker.
“You have to leave in the morning and find someplace to go,” he says. “If it weren't for a few establishments in the city that let you in, like Burger King and the library, there would be more deaths around here from exposure to the elements.”
Determined to draw attention to the gaps in the safety net, Walker and a group of like-minded shelter clients have vowed to organize an “Occupy Social Park” movement beginning April 1. That's the day after Harvest closes the seasonal shelter until next November.
Walker says the idea is to encourage as many displaced clients from the Harvest shelter as possible to pitch tents in the park and, basically, live there as a protest against the lack of a year-round day shelter in Woonsocket that admits homeless, single men. Such a facility already exists for mixed-gender family groups with children, but single men are not admitted.
“I don't care if I get arrested,” says Ray Greeno, a friend of Walker’s who has vowed to participate. “Something needs to be done.”
Walker says he has no way of knowing how many will take part in the event, homeless or otherwise, but he says he's confident displaced Harvest clients will do so.
Also, he says it’s not hard to imagine that a group of homeless people who are already living in a makeshift campsite near the park will join in to draw attention to the issue. Walker says this is just one of several off-the-grid sites in the city where people are living in tents, cardboard boxes and hastily assembled piles of debris.
He's not exaggerating. Without looking very hard, Call photographer Ernest Brown, using directions given by Walker, located an isolated, mini-encampment where a group of men and women were living in tents and under a pair of discarded mattresses, stacked like an A-frame. They washed their clothes in the Peters River and hung them out to dry on the limb of a tree knocked over during Hurricane Irene.
The site was furnished with a throwaway sofa and one man was seen dragging a wooden shipping pallet into the area. The outdoor squatters had a campfire going and apparently intended to use the pallet for fuel after smashing it up.
Walker readily admits that no amount of community outreach will be capable of helping some of these individuals, who would rather drink and do drugs than abide by the rules of shelters. But he says many others are not homeless by choice — they’ve been displaced by economic upheaval and they would find it easier to get back on their feet in the more settled environment of a day shelter.
Walker says he worked steadily as a car salesman for 25 years and some of his shelter-mates are welders, painters and other out-of-work tradesmen.
Walker said he went to City Hall three times in recent days looking for someone willing to discuss the idea of establishing a day shelter with him, but he got nowhere. If occupying Social Park is the only way to draw attention to the issue, he says, so be it.
“I'm tired of having doors closed in my face,” he says.
When he was asked about his overnight guests' plans for a display of civil disobedience, Gene Giguere, the pastor of Harvest Community Church, said, “This is the first I've heard of it.” In fairness to Giguere, Walker and his friends say they deliberately kept him and other church personnel out of the loop because they didn't want to put them on the spot or force them to take a position on their plans.
But Giguere does not disagree about the limits of the Harvest shelter as a gap-filler in the social safety net. Such facilities, including the Sayles Street shelter operated by Family Resources Inc., are not a solution to the problem of homelessness, he says. The only viable long-term solution is more affordable housing.
Giguere says the church is working on such a plan in partnership with other city-based agencies, but like many efforts to grow the stock of affordable housing, it’s not happening as quickly as many homeless advocates would like.
Harvest Community Church didn’t set all the rules for its homeless mission that guests such as Walker find so unsatisfactory. When the church first announced it wanted to step in to help provide supports for homeless many years ago, the groundrules emerged as a result of negotiations between church leaders and city officials.
While Giguere declined to take a position on whether he would support an occupy-the-park-style protest, the pastor said that if he had known about the plans beforehand he probably would have counseled organizers to consider other options.
“I'd have said, 'Let's think this through,'” he says. “There are a lot of super, super-dedicated people out there working on the same problems that you're concerned about, much of it under the radar. If you take the wrong approach you can hurt your cause and end up alienating some of the people who can do so much to help you.”
Mayor Leo T. Fontaine acknowledged that he had had a meeting with Walker and that he was informed of the plans for the Social Park protest. Walker and his friends dropped off a hand-written flyer at City Hall announcing the event, tentatively dubbed “Fighting 4 Shelter.” It says, “Join us in occupying WWII Memorial Park Starting 4-1-12 4 p.m. Come join us please.”
Fontaine said he is in talks with Police Chief Tom Carey about how the city should respond if a tent city suddenly sprouts up in the 11-acre, inner-city park.
“We're already in discussions about what our options may be if that happens,” he said.