An Open letter to the North End Regarding the Charles St Encampment


Aug 7 2023


To The North End,


I’m writing this open letter to provide an update on the Charles St encampment and share my perspective on recent events. When I campaigned to be your city councilor, I promised to restore your faith and trust in local government. I believe that begins with transparency and honesty, regardless of how contentious the issues may be. You deserve to know what’s on my mind and why I’ve arrived at a specific conclusion. However, please be aware that the content of this letter may be sensitive and evoke strong emotions.


The Charles St encampment, located near the DaVinci Center and Charles Place apartments, has been a topic of discussion for several months during our monthly neighborhood meetings. As some of you may know, this encampment has been part of our neighborhood for several years, albeit on a small scale, mostly situated on state land along the West River. Recently, it has relocated to an empty privately owned lot near Charles Place apartments, a low-income elderly complex. The city issued a vacate order on Friday, requiring the encampment to leave the private lot within 48 hours. This situation has put those residing there in a difficult position, as available shelter is virtually nonexistent across our state.


I want to express my position unequivocally. While the city has chosen to evict the encampment residents in the name of enforcing trespassing laws, I strongly disagree with this decision to evict them without ensuring they have an alternative. The undeniable reality is that an alternative solution will not materialize before the deadline. The scarcity of available shelter only exacerbates the proliferation of encampments throughout our city and state. I have implored the city to reconsider this course of action or, at the very least, extend the deadline by a month. This extension would provide housing providers and outreach workers with additional time to assist these residents in securing suitable housing.


Allow me a moment to address how we’ve arrived at this point. Over the past few months, the Charles St encampment has garnered considerable attention, largely due to Gene Valicenti, a local conservative radio host who has oversimplified the issue on his platform. His lack of context and relentless pressure on city officials, namely Mayor Brett Smiley, have created a public relations nightmare, compelling them to hastily take action and clear the encampment, disregarding the advice of housing experts and established best practices.


While Mr. Valicenti claims to have visited the encampment on his radio show, it’s evident that he never truly connected with its residents or delved into their stories. If he had taken these steps, he would have encountered a world of complexities and hardships these individuals endure, urging him away from perpetuating fear. Unfortunately, his goal isn’t genuine, nuanced discourse – it seems he aims to pander to his audience, elevating their anxiety and generating controversy solely to boost his show’s ratings.


Let me be absolutely clear and share some undeniable truths I hold. First and foremost, the presence of an encampment reflects our collective failure as a society. No one should be living in such conditions. I categorically reject this reality. The somber truth is that specific sections of this encampment, particularly those near the West River on state land, shrouded by trees, pose severe safety hazards. Those residing in this area have faced dangers such as flooding and rat infestations before being compelled to vacate by the state. Tragically, over the years, certain residents have even lost their lives within this state-owned section of the encampment, succumbing to overdose and suicide.


This is an unacceptable reality for our government and society. But the more we marginalize and demonize the unhoused through fear, the more we push them into the shadows, and the more this tragic reality becomes the norm in our city. Unfortunately, this is the state of affairs that has unfolded over the past few months.


An illustrative case of this fear-driven narrative came into play when certain media outlets reported an incident from several months ago involving an individual suspected of residing in the encampment. The story highlighted how this person had broken into the DaVinci Center, setting off security alarms and prompting swift police intervention that led to an arrest. However, crucial details were omitted by these outlets. What they failed to disclose to the public was that when the police arrived, the suspect did not steal any valuable equipment nor cause damage to the DaVinci Center property. Instead, he was found holding a sandwich he had taken from the center’s kitchen – an act borne out of hunger and an attempt to alleviate his gnawing hunger pains. This selective reporting further perpetuates a distorted narrative that only fuels the cycle of fear and misunderstanding surrounding our unhoused neighbors.


The second undeniable truth is that certain neighbors, residing in close proximity to the encampment, have grown increasingly frustrated by its ongoing presence. This sentiment is notably pronounced among specific residents of Charles Place apartments. Their feelings of unease stem from the actions of a select few individuals within the encampment, actions often linked to struggles with mental health and substance abuse.


I want to make it clear that I’m not using this explanation as an excuse for such behavior, nor am I disregarding the legitimate concerns of some Charles Place residents. Rather, I aim to provide context that sheds light on the underlying factors contributing to the situation. It’s important to acknowledge that many residents within the encampment have been forthright about their mental health and substance-related challenges and have maintained peace and a sense of community at the encampment. Navigating this may appear delicate, yet confronting this situation calls for a nuanced approach – a quality that has sadly been missing in the ongoing discourse.


Emphasizing the term “some” is crucial here. It remains accurate that not all Charles Place residents feel unsafe or bothered by the encampment’s presence. In fact, some have shared that they’ve had limited or no interactions with those residing in the nearby encampment, thus remaining relatively unaffected.


While the majority of the encampment has conducted themselves peacefully, a subset has engaged in disruptive behavior over an extended period. My insights into this matter arise from consistent and direct interactions with both Charles Place residents and those living in the encampment. Addressing public safety is a complex challenge, and as your city councilor, I am committed to transparency. I will admit that effectively managing the safety concerns of both encampment residents and those at Charles Place apartments has proven to be a complex challenge.


Over the course of several months, I’ve made numerous visits to the encampment, engaging with a diverse range of individuals – some familiar faces, while encountering others for the first time. However, it was last Friday that brought forth a sobering realization of the tragic consequences stemming from our flawed system. During this visit, I brought food to the encampment, and what unfolded before me was a jarring wake-up call.


In that moment, I observed a young man, only 30 years of age, succumb to an overdose right before my eyes. The feeling of helplessness that washed over me is indescribable. The experience was profoundly distressing. As I watched, it felt as though I was on the verge of losing him. Reacting swiftly, I called for immediate rescue assistance. Fortunately, members of the encampment had access to Narcan and promptly administered it, ultimately saving his life. This incident prompted a series of poignant reflections.


Throughout this ordeal, I contemplated the proximity to death that this young man had experienced. We were close in age, and I wondered if we might have crossed paths in high school. I pondered the potential existence of his family, his role as someone’s son or brother, and the intricate layers that underlie these complex issues. Above all, this incident reaffirmed a fundamental truth: no individual within our city is dispensable. We must consistently honor the humanity of every person, recognizing their inherent worth and striving to ensure that they receive the care and support they deserve.


Other heart-wrenching moments have etched themselves deeply into my memory, like the time I chatted with a pregnant mother amidst the encampment’s unforgiving summer heat. Her yearning for a better life for both herself and her unborn child tugged at my very soul. Another resident bravely revealed the physical scars she carries – fragments of bullets lodged within her, a constant reminder of a past trauma that continues to haunt her ability to earn a living. 


Even as I share these stories to shed light on their humanity, there are those who may raise the flag of self-responsibility, unfairly casting blame upon them for their circumstances. Yet, as a devoted husband, father, social worker, and city councilor, I staunchly reject this perspective. It’s far too simplistic, lacking the depth of understanding and empathy that these complex issues deserve. As I occupy this seat and represent you to the best of my ability, I make a conscious choice to craft legislation infused with boundless compassion. This compassion knows no bounds, extending beyond the confines of City Hall to embrace the resilient souls living within this encampment and, of course, to you – the amazing individuals whom I am honored to serve.


Throughout this time, I’ve experienced frustration due to the slow progress and the challenges I’ve encountered in attempting to unite city and state officials, as well as service providers, into a collaborative effort. I must admit that this experience has been truly enlightening for me. I’ve tried working behind the scenes to raise awareness, especially in recent times, but bureaucratic obstacles at every level of government, blame-shifting between city and state officials, breakdowns in communication and coordination among outreach workers and advocacy groups, and the absence of accessible low barrier shelter and housing options have created a labyrinthine system. Our overburdened Coordinated Entry System (CES) has devolved into a bureaucratic quagmire, ultimately harming the very residents of this encampment who are in dire need of housing. Honestly, as I write this letter, I am overwhelmed by frustration, disheartened, and feeling powerless.


As a clinical social worker myself, I fully recognize the immense challenges inherent in this line of work. I firmly believe that individuals engaged in this field are motivated by genuine intentions and consistently strive to make a positive impact. There’s no doubt in my mind about that. I want to be clear that I’m not claiming to possess all the answers at this moment. While I may not be an expert in unhoused outreach, I’ve undergone a significant learning curve over the past few months.


The noticeable disconnect within the system has strongly emphasized for me the critical necessity of comprehensive, systemic changes and a more effective approach to addressing these complex challenges. I’ve observed that these changes will undoubtedly require a significant investment of time – a luxury we unfortunately lack.


I think it’s important to point out that the conventional city policies and protocols surrounding encampments have proven ineffective. The practice of relocating individuals from one area without establishing a sustainable support plan has merely led to them resettling elsewhere in the city, which has already begun, failing to address the root problem. I know this from firsthand experience, as the Charles St encampment has persisted in the North End for several years. Despite eviction notices over time, individuals have returned to the encampment because viable alternatives in this city are scarce. It’s time for a more comprehensive and lasting solution that isn’t merely politically motivated. 


This is precisely why I urged the city to reconsider its decision or, at the very least, extend a lifeline to the encampment. By doing so, we could foster a stronger foundation of trust and connection with the individuals residing there, providing an opportunity to delve deeper into their unique needs – something that hasn’t been adequately addressed by government officials. Instead, we’ve relied on the valiant efforts of outreach workers who, despite limited support, are striving to achieve miracles within the tight confines of a 48-hour deadline set by our city’s authorities.


My hope is that granting an extension of at least one month would provide us the chance to genuinely collaborate as a unified front – bringing together the resources and determination of city and state government along with dedicated service providers. I do believe that together, we can overcome these obstacles and make substantial strides towards securing appropriate shelter for those currently in the encampment.


I hope that this open letter will send a strong message to all stakeholders involved, urging them to embrace a truly meaningful and impactful approach to finally address this issue head-on, together. And I trust that you, my neighbor and constituent, will approach this issue thoughtfully, showing empathy and understanding towards our unhoused brothers and sisters, who have made North End their home, even if their presence differs from the traditional norms.


With love + gratitude,

Justin Roias

Providence City Councilor | Ward 4


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