WOONSOCKET – Plastic bags of litter dangle neatly from the branches of trees. Scavenged bits of furniture are arranged into makeshift outdoor dining nooks, beside the tents. Nearby, a green-necked duck splashes down in the Blackstone River, looking for the expected handout.
“We have our animal friends,” says Ray Greeno. “We’re happy here.”
A Vietnam veteran who’s been homeless for months, Greeno, 57, has been living in a tent on the banks of the Blackstone River since the beginning of the month, when the overnight shelter at Harvest Church closed for the season.
Thirteen other men also live here, each with his own tent, in one of several homeless encampments that have sprouted up across the city.
Meghan Farrelly, the director housing for Family Resources Community Action Program, said the appearance of the encampments is akin to a rite of spring. “It happens every year, as soon as Harvest closes the shelter,” she says.
Family Resources has been running the 48-bed Woonsocket Shelter for the homeless on Sayles Street since 1989, but single men haven’t been permitted since at least 1995. The agency thinks it’s too risky to allow women and children to live alongside homeless men, many of whom are afflicted by substance abuse problems and behavioral issues.
Harvest picks up part of the slack by inviting homeless men to spend nights in the church during the coldest months of the year, but they’re on their own between April and October.
“Where are they supposed to go?” says Farrelly. “First of all there’s an availability issue with housing. It’s expensive. A lot of these men don’t have jobs so they can’t afford housing, and without housing it’s hard to find a job. Criminal histories get in the way. Public housing will hold all kinds of things against people.”
Farrelly said Family Resources has made efforts to find housing placements for some of the men in Greeno’s encampment, all of whom are believed to be refugees from Harvest Church. She said one was placed in emergency housing and others were given leads on how to address issues that were impediments to securing a placement, but she said she doesn’t know how those men fared.
Greeno is part of the same group of men who were threatening to “occupy” World War II Veterans Park after Harvest closed in protest of the city’s lack of a day shelter for men earlier this year. As a result of that threat, Greeno said, the leaders of the group met with Family Resources at Woonsocket police headquarters. Representatives of Mayor Leo T. Fontaine and the state police were also there.
Greeno said the Harvest men agreed not to occupy the highly visible park and go someplace more discreet. The men were also gratified to hear that an effort will be made to build some type of shelter for men on Burnside Avenue. Actually, Farrelly said Family Resources is behind that initiative, which will provide supervised emergency housing for up to nine men, but the facility will not open before the spring of 2013.
Under the deal with the city, Greeno said there was a tacit understanding that the men would be living outdoors, but no one would bother them as long as they didn’t make trouble and kept things orderly. The location was supposed to be a secret, though Greeno says, with a detectable note of dismay, word is obviously getting around.
“Nobody gave us permission to stay here,” says Greeno. “It turns out this is sort of a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ policy.’”
A few complaints about the tent village have begun to reach City Hall, most of them originating from one of the few vantage points where its possible to get a clear view of the site, Kennedy Manor, a high-rise for senior citizens.
“We’ve had calls about smoke, from their campfires,” says Linda Plays, an aide to Mayor Fontaine.
A woman who operates a business less than a hundred yards from the encampment also complained to the city. But when asked about her concerns, she declines comment, saying she doesn’t want to make trouble. “So far, so good,” she says. “As long as they’re not bothering me.”
Matthew Wojcik, the director of economic development/human resources, says the Harvest men absolutely do not have a permission slip to live along the Blackstone River. On the other hand, the city does not plan any immediate action to remove them from the site. He’s under the impression Family Resources will find shelter for them by the end of the month, but Farrelly says she doesn’t know where he got that idea.
“Absolutely not,” she said.
For all its gerryrigged and tumbledown character, the campsite Greeno and his companions call home is an incredibly functional place, even tidy-looking. One tower-like tent is actually a shower, with “an emergency toilet” in it, as Greeno puts it. Greeno says no one is allowed to use the bathroom in the camp unless it unavoidable; usually, the men visit friends with apartments or take advantage of public options.
They cook on a circular hearth of stones covered with a grilltop, and collect dried wood to make fires. Visitors sometimes drop off cans of soup and other foods, and the site is scattered with assorted pots, pans, and eating utensils. The trash is discarded daily.
A house painter by trade, Greeno says he hasn’t had an apartment since November and hasn’t held a job in at least as long. But Greeno says no one’s forcing him to live in a tent by the river.
It’s a solidarity thing, a show of support for his homeless brethren. Plus, he likes the company.
“I’m down here for the last man,” he says. “These people are actually better than living in a shelter, even though they’re homeless. At least you can talk to them.”