By ARDEN BASTIA The House of Hope ECHO Village, a project that was in the works for a year, is back to square one after elected officials and South Providence residents vocally opposed the project during a community meeting on July 22. Laura Jaworski,
The House of Hope ECHO Village, a project that was in the works for a year, is back to square one after elected officials and South Providence residents vocally opposed the project during a community meeting on July 22.
Laura Jaworski, executive director for the House of Hope, said in an interview Friday that the meeting didn’t go as planned.
“No one was afforded the opportunities of a community forum,” she said. The event was billed as a community conversation, but local elected officials and residents loudly opposed the proposal over concerns about safety.
Since mid-April, the South Providence Neighborhood Association (SPNA) has been in discussion with the House of Hope regarding the concept for the ECHO Village.
The village was set to be located at Prairie and Thurbers avenues, in a large brown brick building that was the former home of the RIPTA trolley depot and a recycling center. With more than 10,000 square feet and in close proximity to a bus line, Jaworski said HOH clients shared they were comfortable staying in that location.
The ECHO Village would have consisted of 30 pallet shelters – small, 64-square-foot fiberglass PVC shelters that feature one or two single beds and shelves for personal belongings. The ECHO Village would house between 30 and 60 unsheltered folks. Although the individual shelters don’t have running water, they do have heating and cooling systems. House of Hope planned to use the Shower to Empower mobile unit to offer hygiene services to those staying in the village.
During the meeting, Dwayne Keys, SPNA president, said the association did not approve of the ECHO Village location due to safety concerns and a heavy presence of social services already in the area.
In an open letter, published on Facebook, to South Providence neighbors explaining the association’s stance, Keys wrote, “It is unfortunate that the outbursts of persons who do not live in the Southside (or Providence) but were in attendance at this meeting while the presentation was still taking place led to the outcomes witnessed by you … Given these factors, SPNA supports our neighbors in also saying NO to having this project based at that location.”
Keys points out “two major, yet consistent concerns,” raised by community members.
The first is the village’s “direct proximity … to Roger Williams Middle School, Juanita Sanchez Complex, B. Jae Clanton Elementary School, and Roger Williams Day Care; along with other schools, recreational facilities, and organizations with ongoing programs focused on our youth – also in close proximity to this location,” wrote Keys.
The second was “the existing concentration and saturation of other similar related housing and social services programs in the Southside of Providence, resulting in disparate impacts to our residents and our neighborhood – the majority of who are members of the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) and other historically excluded groups.”
Keys wrote that the “Southside is doing our part and more than our fair share,” to mitigate the state’s housing crisis, and added that the “SNPA is willing to assist in finding another more suitable location.”
But for Jaworski, this means she and her team have to return to the drawing board.
“The nature of the meeting was to dive into community topics,” said Jaworski, who was disheartened by the turn of events.
“Our door-to-door experience was received favorably by neighbors and businesses, but the night of the event, a seemingly very different crowd showed up and was opposed to the location,” she said.
During the meeting, Jaworksi struggled to explain the project, given the frequent interruptions from elected officials, like Rep. Anastasia Williams, Sen. Ana Quezada, Rep. Grace Diaz, Rep. Jose Batistia, and Providence City Council members Carmen Castillo, Pedro Espinal and Mary Kay Harris. Elected officials also ignored the services of Arely Diaz, the interpreter assigned to the meeting, instead providing their own translations.
Jaworski described the scene as chaotic, with little in the way of substantive conversations. “Elected officials compared homeless folks to trash, which was traumatizing and triggering for my team and I to hear.”
Jaworski said unhoused folks who were present at the meeting to share their experiences were “dehumanized and incorrectly labeled as outsiders.”
She said she was appalled at “the vitriol being spewed.”
“We are in these neighborhoods, of these communities and for these communities. We sometimes get a lot of pushback because our organization is headquartered in Warwick,” she said, pointing out that many staff members at the House of Hope grew up or currently live in the Southside of Providence.
The site on the corner of Prairie and Thurbers was the fourth one the organization had considered for the ECHO Village.
Jaworski explained the other sites fell through due to zoning concerns and building code challenges.
“An empty building in a community is more dangerous than an occupied one,” said Jaworski in an interview on Friday. “The building has been broken into, stripped of mechanicals, it’s become a real attraction spot for the wrong kind of activities that neighborhoods really don’t want.”
She pointed out that hotels could no longer be used as temporary shelter, now that tourism season is upon the state. “People have been offered hotel rooms to stay, but they’re not in their community of choice. People should be able to seek respite and shelter in their community.”
With homelessness up 66 percent in the state over the last year, an estimated 1,104 unsheltered individuals are living on the streets, in a car, in encampments, or other spaces not meant for human habitation on any given day, according to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Jaworski views the issue as “a public health crisis.”
“What is it going to take for leadership in the state to realize that homelessness is a public health emergency? What will it take for them to treat it like a pandemic? We mobilized in COVID, why can’t we look at this crisis the same way?” said Jaworski.
The next step for the House of Hope is to scout out other locations, Jaworski hopes before the colder weather sets in.
“We’re losing constituents to the streets,” she said. “The streets aren’t a waiting room. We need to care for the Rhode Islanders that are struggling right now.”