PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Around two dozen homeless people remain camped outside the Rhode Island State House to call attention to what they say is a lack of adequate housing and shelter.
Attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Rhode Island Center for Justice filed a new complaint on their behalf Tuesday seeking to halt attempts from the McKee administration to clear them from the grounds.
The lawsuit alleges that removing the homeless individuals violates their rights to free speech and assembly, along with the Homeless Bill of Rights.
Jennifer Wood, an attorney from the Rhode Island Center of Justice, said all too often, they find there are “many more” unhoused people than there are adequate shelter resources and affordable housing. The protest, she said, is about elevating those concerns, and the legal action is to ensure the protesters’ constitutional right to petition the government to solve that problem is upheld.
“The people who we are representing in this matter are not staying at the State House because they enjoy freezing in the winter on the plaza in front of the State House,” Wood said during a news conference Tuesday. “But rather because there’s a longer-term, relatively intractable issue that the state has been confronting.”
Watch: ACLU news conference (story continues below)
The legal challenge expands upon an injunction filed last week by attorney Rick Corley, who was also on hand for Tuesday’s announcement.
Last Wednesday, staffers from Gov. Dan McKee’s office handed out notices saying the homeless individuals must vacate the State House grounds by Friday morning. They were allowed to stay, however, after Corley’s injunction led to a judge issuing a temporary restraining order against the removal on Friday.
In handing out the notices, the McKee administration said outreach workers were coordinating with the homeless individuals to relocate them to shelters and store their belongings. McKee told 12 News on Tuesday that finding beds for those individuals remains his objective.
“If it’s a First Amendment right, then let them argue it out, but right now, this is the right of the people who are sitting in the cold last night in front of the State House when they could be sitting in warm shelter right now if we actually had a decision last Friday to allow us to do that,” he said.
The governor’s office was expected to make an announcement Tuesday afternoon regarding a planned 24-hour warming station inside the Cranston Street Armory. The state has been seeking a vendor to operate the shelter, but as of Tuesday evening one had not been announced.
The Cranston Street shelter not being ready was one of the sticking points for Corley when he filed the injunction. He claimed other shelters in the area were full, and as such, the homeless people camped outside the State House were not provided the services they were promised.
One of those individuals, Adam Northrop, said during Tuesday’s news conference that not everyone in the camp was offered housing.
“As far as me getting offered housing, I haven’t gotten offered anything,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing said preparations are underway to get the site ready to open as soon as a vendor is selected. Last week, 50 cot-style beds were delivered to the site, along with blankets, PPE, and COVID-19 test kits.
In a live interview with 12 News on Tuesday, Rhode Island Housing Secretary Josh Saal said he has a team working “around the clock” to help not just the individuals outside the State House, but also homeless people all over the state.
“We have people who are unhoused and we need to really work as a state together to create the housing we need so we don’t just get these people to shelter, or get them connected to shelter, but get them connected to permanent housing where they can thrive, where they can grow, and where all their needs are met,” Saal explained.
He said their goal is to make resources available, which may include shelter beds, though it doesn’t stop there since not everyone wants to go to a shelter.
Saal noted the state set aside $5 million in funding this year to expand shelter capacity by 350 beds, but they’ve since had some setbacks like the sprinkler malfunction at Memorial Hospital that displaced 30 families.
A hearing on the injunction request has been scheduled for Wednesday.