Occupy Providence, city reach deal to end standoff

Posted Jan. 23, 2012, at 8:57 p.m.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Occupy Providence said Monday that it has reached an agreement with city officials over the opening of a temporary homeless day center that will bring an end to a monthslong standoff over the group’s encampment downtown.

Protesters voted unanimously Sunday night to dismantle their tents at Burnside Park as soon as a day center planned for Emmanuel House in south Providence opens.

In an initial statement, the group said the city had agreed to help find funding to cover staff for three months, though it didn’t specify an amount. An amended statement said only that the city would assist in “supporting the center” to cover staff for the same period. Homeless advocates have estimated that it would cost about $10,000 a month to operate the day center, which would supplement existing shelter facilities.

“I consider this a victory for Occupy Providence standing up for the most disenfranchised people that don’t have many people standing up for them,” protester Robert Malin said. “It shows that with pressure from people, a government can be made to move.”

Malin said activists have been told the facility will open soon. It will be run by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, which already operates an emergency winter shelter at Emmanuel House. The Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project and the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless will also provide support, and activists plan to volunteer there, Occupy Providence said.

David Ortiz, a spokesman for Mayor Angel Taveras, didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment. A diocese spokesman, Michael Guilfoyle, couldn’t immediately be reached.

Occupy activists voted narrowly in December to leave Burnside Park if the city opened a day center to serve Providence’s homeless population during the coldest months. City officials and Occupy spent weeks negotiating the details of such a center, including how much funding the city would put toward it, when it would open and when protesters would dismantle their tents and go home.

Protesters have been encamped since Oct. 15 despite the city’s demand that they leave.

City officials threatened legal action, then went into mediation with the group instead. Another session took place Monday afternoon.

The opening of a day center is a victory for the protest group, which has made housing and homelessness its signature issues. A peaceful, voluntary departure by activists from the park — effectively negotiated with the city — would also stand in marked contrast to other occupations across the country, some of which have been forcibly removed, at times violently.

A few dozen tents are still in Burnside, but the ranks of those staying overnight have thinned considerably.

According to the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, about 4,400 people in the state experienced homelessness at some point in 2010.

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