Paolino plan for Kennedy Plaza includes more funding, panhandling ban

Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI 12
Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – From an ordinance designed to curtail panhandling to securing more funds for social-service organizations, former Providence Mayor Joe Paolino unveiled a plan Wednesday aimed at cleaning up the area in and around Kennedy Plaza while also supporting the city’s neediest residents.

Speaking to members of the Providence Foundation in a meeting at the Rhode Island Convention Center, Paolino pledged to fight for more state funding for the homeless, provide a few jobs for panhandlers and dedicate at least one unit in his new micro loft building to people from Crossroads Rhode Island, the state’s largest homeless shelter.

But Paolino also made it clear current Mayor Jorge Elorza and other state leaders need to take steps to address the business community’s concerns about downtown Providence, which critics say has seen a spike in vagrancy and nuisance crimes this year.

“My job and the job of the downtown business people isn’t to take care of society’s problems all in one shot,” Paolino said. “We’re not elected to anything. But I do think every little bit helps.”

Elorza, who was not in attendance for Paolino’s event, has called a press conference for Thursday morning to unveil his own plan for addressing the issues in Kennedy Plaza. Separately Gov. Gina Raimondo has asked state transportation officials to speed up efforts to move buses out of the plaza due to safety concerns.

Paolino has criticized Elorza’s lack of action in recent months, but on Wednesday he praised the mayor for “showing great leadership” over the last few weeks. He said the two still don’t see eye to eye on every issue, but indicated he plans to attend the press conference Thursday.

“I don’t think you can do anything in the city without the mayor’s leadership,” Paolino said.

On the enforcement side, Paolino said the city should either approve a ban on smoking in all of downtown – an ordinance he has proposed without the support of Elorza – or lift an existing ban on smoking in public parks. Paolino claims the park ban has pushed smokers out of Burnside Park and Kennedy Plaza and onto the sidewalks and side streets near businesses in downtown.

Paolino is also supporting an ordinance being introduced at Thursday’s City Council meeting that would outlaw panhandlers from seeking money from people in cars. In order to ensure the constitutionality of the ordinance, he said, the policy would also apply to any group seeking to raise money, including charities.

Paolino said the Downtown Improvement District, an organization he chairs, is committing to invest $100,000 to help hire panhandlers and bring more caseworkers to Kennedy Plaza. He said the goal is to assist people with substance-abuse issues.

The former mayor also said he wants to help advocates for the homeless secure an additional $1 million in support from the General Assembly, with the ultimate goal of convincing to legislature to up its contributions by $5 million.

While Paolino’s proposal was generally well-received by the 40 business leaders and social-service workers in attendance, it was met with fierce opposition from activist groups during a morning press conference outside his office building on Westminster Street.

The group, which included representatives from the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project and Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE), accused Paolino of attempting to criminalize homelessness. The group then attempted to attend Paolino’s event, but were blocked by security guards. (Several reporters were also blocked from attending the event, but Paolino said that was not intentional.)

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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