Mayor Smiley’s War on the Poor: “… because of Mayor Smiley’s actions, people will die.”

Treadtracks from the heavy equipment that trundled past campers while they were racing to evacuate from the campsite off Veazie Street. (Photo: Steve Ahlquist)

It is believed by outreach workers that by the time any members of the Providence Police Department arrived at the two unhoused encampments cruelly evicted by Providence Mayor Brett Smiley, the encampments were empty. All that remained was the trash that Mayor Smiley refused to provide receptacles for, and whatever possessions those being evicted were unable to carry out of the encampments.


Some people were able to move their tents, temporarily, onto private property, where presumably the Providence Police would need a warrant to enter. Because television news crews from WJAR Channel 10 and WLVI Channel 12 refused to respect the privacy of those setting up in the new encampment, the private landowner put up picket fencing to shield the campers from the cameras. Both news teams were happy to broadcast the location of the temporary encampment to their viewers. In the case of WJAR Channel 10, this is especially troubling since morning news host Gene Valicenti routinely uses his platform to harass and hound unhoused people and rarely passes up a chance to push Mayor Smiley into taking more aggressive action against the unhoused.

The site of the new encampment is temporary — providing time for advocates to place people into more permanent shelters. It can hold nowhere near the number of people being evicted. Michael (not his real name) is one unhoused person I’ve interviewed before. Michael told me that the new, smaller encampment is crowded and that no new campers would be allowed to join them. The plan, said Michael, was for outreach workers and advocates to place them into better situations as shelter beds and supportive housing become available.

The fact that the new encampment was on private property did not prevent the Providence Police from harassing the recently uprooted campers early Tuesday morning. More than one camper reported to me that the police told them that camping, even on private property, is illegal and that they were still under threat of eviction. Now that the encampment is on private property, will the Smiley Administration make sure that the police secure warrants before rousting people in the middle of the night and running their IDs? Though Rhode Island’s Homeless Bill of Rights ensures unhoused people of their 4th Amendment rights, Mayor Smiley has not hesitated to defend the actions of police officers who violate the state statute.

When I asked the Mayor’s press secretary, Josh Estrella, about this, he dodged the question. “You are correct that camping on public property is not legal. If a private property owner requests that police assist removing individuals from their private property who are not allowed to be there, for any reason, the Providence Police Department will provide that notice and assist the private property owner upon their request,” wrote Estrella.

As for the people evicted, they used to look out for each other, administering Narcan if someone overdosed, or protecting each other from outsiders who may wish them harm. There is safety in numbers, and as that safety evaporates, negative outcomes increase.
“…the bad news is that we have our folks scattered to the far ends of the city,” said an outreach worker to me. “We have people everywhere now.”

People are scattered in smaller encampments across the city. They no longer have the community to help them or a way to look out for each other. They have been divided and disempowered — easier to target and harass.

I asked Mayor Smiley if the people living in the encampments were criminals.

“I don’t think so,” said Mayor Smiley. “I mean, as we talked about earlier, I haven’t met the people living in these encampments, but they’re not criminals for being homeless.”
Mayor Smiley is a smart man, and he’s hired smart people to advise him. So it would be surprising to me if he did not know that evicting encampments “may yield substantial increases in morbidity and mortality over a 10-year period,” as noted in a paper published at JAMA. “Involuntary displacement is estimated to worsen overdose and hospitalizations, decrease initiations of medications for opioid use disorder, and contribute to deaths among people experiencing homelessness who inject drugs.” This is one of at least four studies I have heard about that reached similar conclusions.

If unhoused people are coded as illegal no matter where they try to exist, then allowing the police and the state to harass them and chase them around becomes a form of persecution. Add to that enacting policies that are known to increase morbidity and mortality, and the intention borders on genocidal.

Mayor Smiley is not pursuing policies to bring people out of poverty and into safe, clean homes. He is not fighting a war on poverty. He is weaponizing public resources and our tax dollars to enact a war on poor people, and because of Mayor Smiley’s actions, people will die.

Read more by Steve Ahlquist at steveahlquist.substack.com, including more extensive coverage on people experiencing homelessness in RI.

The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of the magazine.