Mind and Body/Opinion

How to combat fear and loathing in RI

Two stories published last week, one by Katie Mulvaney, the other by Steve Ahlquist, offer journalism at its finest

Photo by Steve Ahlquist

Steve Ahlquist reported that he witnessed machinery from the R.I. Department of Transportation as it “chomped” through a wooded area, reducing the property of unhoused people to trash and pushing some of it into the river. According to volunteers, operators of the equipment ignored their pleas to halt work, despite a pregnant woman being inside a tent and directly in the path of the machinery.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 8/14/23
Two stories published this week, one by Katie Mulvaney, the other by Steve Ahlquist, documented the connections between being homeless, being dopesick, and the culture wars that have erupted around these issues.
Why does Gov. McKee keep repeating the falsehood that housing advocates want to keep the homeless, homeless? Who would be willing to sponsor a media debate between Gene Valicenti and Steve Ahlquist where the moderator controls the microphone? What kinds of innovative solutions have been explored to promote alternatives to emergency shelter housing opportunities?
What would it take to bring Beth Macy, author of “Dopesick,” Shannon Monnat, Syracuse University sociologist, and novelist Barbara Kingsolver to Rhode Island to give a joint lecture together at Brown University, URI, or Bryant University to create the kind of dialogue needed to change the conversation around harm reduction, substance use, and affordable housing in Rhode Island?

PROVIDENCE – Two important stories were published last week, journalism at its finest, in ConvergenceRI’s opinion. The first, by Katie Mulvaney, veteran reporter with The Providence Journal, “From addiction to advocate, RI’s mission to help pregnant mothers battling with substance abuse,” provided a superb lesson in storytelling.

Mulvaney’s story, published on Thursday, Aug. 10, began: “Katie Merchant Gonzalez has two phones on her at all times, ready to take calls day or night. She knows that many of the callers on the other end are fragile and struggling – pregnant women or new moms wrestling with substance-use disorders. She also knows just how narrow the window is to get them the help they and their babies need. So when someone calls, Katie picks up.”

Mulvaney’s story continued: “If somebody says they’re ready for treatment, you have a very small opportunity. Being available at that moment is the most important thing,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez, 41, knows from experience. She was addicted to opioids for years and found herself living on the streets of Providence, squatting in drug houses or “abandominiums,” she quips, until she finally had enough.

Mulvaney’s reporting captured the voice of Gonzalez and her journey from being dope sick to recovery: “I remember winters where it was colder inside than it was out,” she said. She was dope sick on Christmas Day and she missed her son.

Mulvaney’s story continued: Today, Gonzalez, who just celebrated eight years in recovery, is an essential piece of the state’s strategy to help pregnant women who are using drugs or have a history of substance use, locating them and enveloping them in services and support with the objective of keeping mothers with their newborn babies as long as it’s safe and they do the work.

Calling out the bullies
Mulvaney’s reporting delved deep into the human journey toward connectedness, documenting the high cost of substance use involving opioids and its relationship to homelessness and survival.

The second story, written by Steve Ahlquist, documented the latest episode in the dismantling of a homeless tent encampment, on Cranston Street in Providence. It  took the form of an op-ed, published Monday, Aug. 7, “Following the script, the Charles Street Encampment was raided today.”

“Sometimes dispassionate journalism doesn’t get you there,” Ahlquist began. “Radio and television shock jock Gene Valicenti has once again inspired violence against unhoused Rhode Islanders, pushing cruel and cowardly political 'leaders' such as R.I. Gov. Dan McKee and Providence Mayor Brett Smiley to raid the Charles Street Tent Encampment on Monday, disrupting and endangering the lives of nearly four dozen people.”

Ahlquist’s story continued: “A pattern was set by Gov. McKee in December [of 2022] when he evicted the State House tent encampment. This pattern was repeated and refined when the state raided the Route 95 underpass encampment and has now been perfected at Charles Street.”

Ahlquist defined what he called the seven-step “pattern” being played out:

1. Right-wing television and/or radio shock jock identifies an encampment of unhoused people, puts them on blast, and incites hatred and fear, rather than compassion for their plight.

2. State and/or city officials send police to issue eviction orders.

3. Fear of police drives out a bunch of unhoused people immediately. These people are not provided shelter; they simply relocate, as best as they are able, to other encampments.

4. Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor’s Director of Communications, Joey Lindstrom, meets with the unhoused people who remain.

5. Lindstrom secures shelter for some of the remaining people by any means necessary, whether by ignoring the state’s Coordinated Entry System [CES] and prioritizing the people in the targeted encampment over the hundreds of people who have been waiting, some of them for years, for housing or shelter placement, or using federal American Rescue Plan Act [ARPA] funds to secure temporary hotel placements.

6. Those who are lucky enough to be sent to shelters sometimes spend a night or two before being violated and kicked out because they are users of illegal substances or because their mental health issues lead to behaviors the shelters find objectionable. Those placed in hotels and motels get maybe 30 to 90 days of relative safety before they are evicted. Very few find any semblance of stability.

7. Mission accomplished.

A culture war in the making
In his op-ed, Ahlquist then detailed the ways in which different elected officials responded to the dismantling of encampments.

Ahlquist wrote: High-profile encampment raids are different from those that don’t generate media attention. In Warwick, Cranston, Woonsocket, and other parts of the state, encampment raids happen when the media isn’t paying attention.

The Mayor of Warwick made the claim, without evidence, that the tents he cleared were all empty, ignoring the fact that whenever he’s not home his house is empty.

The Mayor of Cranston pretended to not know that evictions were happening.

The Mayor of Woonsocket seems to have targeted unhoused people with an almost gleeful disregard for their health and safety, telling them to go to Providence.

All these mayors were simply following the lead of Gov. McKee, whose official policy regarding the unhoused in Rhode Island appears to be cruelty and neglect.

Gov. McKee ignored the calls of advocates who warned him of the crisis of homelessness last summer. When unhoused people staged a protest by camping out in front of the State House, he went to court to forcibly evict them and to destroy their property.

Gov. McKee publicly doubted, without evidence, the number of unhoused people in the state, and when he established the Cranston Street Armory as a low-barrier warming station, he expected maybe 80 people to stay there. The number was consistently over 300, the number that Gov. McKee had previously and publicly doubted.

What is a success story?
Ahlquist made clear in his op-ed that the numbers didn’t always add up to a victory when it came to government intentions around finding shelters for those who had been living in the encampments. He wrote: The Charles Street Tent Encampment is the latest in a series of high-profile encampment raids. Everything that happened here today followed the pattern I laid out above. Of the 40 people at the encampment, about half cleared out after the police issued eviction orders. The people who left carried what they could to other encampments. Of those left at the encampment, two people found shelter with Crossroads. Not missing a beat, Crossroads sent out a fundraising email praising their own efforts. Apparently, finding shelter for two out of 40 people is a victory.

As I write this, I [witnessed] three men loading up carts with their possessions and pushing their way up Charles Street in the rain. With luck, they’ll find a place to pitch a tent. With more luck, they’ll stay in touch with their outreach workers. Many of those who left after the police gave out the eviction notices have fallen off the radar of outreach workers. It may be weeks before contact is re-established, it may be that contact has been lost forever.

Outreach workers worked all day, in the rain, helping people to load up their possessions into cars so they could be driven to a shelter or another encampment. Some people here really didn’t want to leave. The people here look out for each other. It’s easy to overdose when you’re alone in a tent, out of sight. It’s safer to have people around who can look out for you, and perhaps administer Narcan. It’s easier to be the victim of violence when there are one or two or three of you in a group and harder when there is a small community of people looking out for each other.

Substance use, mental health, and housing stability
In her story, Mulvaney quoted Gonzalez and her use of the phrase, “abandominiums,” to describe what it was like to try and find shelter when you are dope sick.

In turn, Ahlquist wrote about the consequences of how such encampment raids made it harder for people to find support and stability. He wrote: Encampment raids make it harder for people dealing with substance use and mental health issues to find the stability and support they need. None of us are at our best when we suffer traumatic loss, and the loss of a community and safety are especially traumatic for those who have so little.

There are alternatives to this cruelty. We could, in the absence of available housing, provide safe areas for people to pitch a tent or park a vehicle if they are living in their car.

Ahlquist continued: These areas could have port-o-potties, food distribution, sharps boxes, medical outreach, mental health outreach, and other necessary services in a place where people could feel safe and looked after. But our political leaders don’t want that, because they think it makes our cities, towns and state look like the kind of place that can’t house their own people and can’t provide essential services to those in need.

They would rather pretend the problem doesn’t exist, like when Gov. McKee openly doubted the number of unhoused people in the state or when the Mayor of Cranston pretended he didn’t know about the encampment raids or when the Mayor of Warwick pretended the encampment he destroyed was empty.

Calling out media bullies
It takes courage and bravery to stand up to and call out media bullies, in ConvergenceRI’s opinion. Ahlquist concluded his op-ed by writing: “In the meantime, our public officials continue to feed the beast that is Gene Valicenti and his radio and television hatefest.

“They continue to pander to his outrage and his incitements to hate and racism. When you see Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor on television with Gene Valicanti, or hear Providence Mayor Brett Smiley on the radio with Gene Valicenti, hold them accountable.

Ask them why they are not pushing back against his hateful speech. Ask them why they act to criminalize poverty at his behest. Ask them why they feel the need to cater to Gene Valicenti’s cruel and cowardly worldview.”

Will the U.S. Supreme Court hold the Sacklers liable?
Call it an important footnote to both Mulvaney’s and Ahlquist’s stories. On Thursday, Aug. 10, the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily blocked bankruptcy proceedings involving Purdue Pharma, the maker of the opioid OxyContin. The settlement would have shielded the Sackler family, owners of the company, from any future civil lawsuits over their role in the country’s opioid epidemic. The U.S. Trustee Program, a watchdog office within the Justice Department, had petitioned the Supreme Court to review the deal.

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