PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A group of homeless people who have been living in tents outside the Rhode Island State House will likely have to find a new place to stay after a judge rejected a legal challenge to their removal on Friday.
The lawsuit filed this week by attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Rhode Island Center for Justice claimed that removing the individuals from the property would infringe upon their rights to free speech and assembly, since their presence is to protest a lack of adequate shelter and affordable housing.
Gov. Dan McKee’s administration argued the Constitution does not protect those sleeping outside the State House, noting that doing so is prohibited under an updated policy signed on Nov. 4.
After hearing three hours of deliberation, R.I Superior Court Judge David Cruise ruled on behalf of the state, saying the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate the perceived rights violation.
Staffers from McKee’s office handed out notices to everyone in the encampment last week, saying they must leave the premises within 48 hours.
Outreach coordinators were also on hand to help them find shelter and transportation, according to the governor’s office.
While McKee said most of the individuals accepted the help, about two dozen remained in protest. They were then allowed to stay past Dec. 9 after Cruise approved a temporary restraining order filed by an attorney.
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The McKee administration stressed it’s been working to increase the state’s shelter capacity. A 24-hour warming station opened Friday evening inside the Cranston Street Armory in Providence.
“From the start, our team has been focused on connecting unhoused Rhode Islanders with safe, warm shelter,” McKee said in a statement Friday. “We were able to outline those extensive outreach efforts to the court and today’s ruling acknowledges the effectiveness of that work.”
“The ruling also upheld the validity of the reasonable time, place and manner restrictions that the Department of Administration has in place for use of the State House grounds,” he added.
In a joint statement, the ACLU and Rhode Island Center for Justice said they’re “extremely disappointed” with the decision, calling the state’s policies on overnight protest “arbitrary and discriminatory.”
“The plaintiffs have stayed at the State House in freezing weather to make an important point, and it is very unfortunate that the end result is that they now face arrest for doing so,” the statement read. “Eliminating this protest may prevent some people from having to directly confront a visible example of the state’s housing crisis, but it only hides the problem and denies the exercise of a fundamental freedom.”
The two groups did note that despite the outcome, the demonstration had some degree of success since many of the protesters were able to find shelter.
“It is telling that it took a months’ long protest to get us to this point,” the statement continued.
Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU’s Rhode Island chapter, told 12 News they plan to appeal the judge’s decision.
As of 5 p.m., the encampment was still in place outside the State House. It was not immediately clear when the judge’s ruling would be enforced.