Paolino’s plan to provide housing to homeless faces community backlash

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Former Providence Mayor Joseph Paolino’s Tuesday press conference to announce his plans to convert St. Joseph’s Hospital into a social service center and housing complex for the needy quickly turned into a community rally opposing the project.

Dozens of politicians, activists and community members from South Providence filled the first floor of hospital at 21 Peace St. to ask why they weren’t included in the planning of the project, criticize the idea of adding more poverty to their neighborhood and question Paolino’s motives.

“We have become the dumping ground for the whole state of Rhode Island,” state Sen. Harold Metts, a Democrat, told the crowd. Metts said he only learned about Paolino’s proposal “through the grapevine.”

State Rep. Grace Diaz, state Sen. Ana Quezada and Councilwoman Mary Kay Harris, all Democrats, offered similar messages during the press conference. In a statement released prior to the event, Harris said she won’t support the project “until it is inclusive of the community that lives here, raises their children here, and pays taxes here.”

Paolino, who served as the city’s mayor from 1984 until 1990, purchased the hospital from Prospect CharterCARE on Dec. 28. He said Monday he wants to provide housing to more than 300 homeless people and partner with social service providers to assist the poor.

As chairman of the city’s Downtown Improvement District, Paolino has become a vocal advocate for tackling the homelessness and panhandling issues that have become a nuisance in downtown. Paolino has called on the city and social service agencies to work together to providing more housing and rehab programs to needy while also ramping up law enforcement against those who commit crimes in that area.paolino-protest

On Tuesday he invited Gov. Gina Raimondo, Mayor Jorge Elorza, Rhode Island Foundation CEO and President Neil Steinberg, Crossroads CEO and President Karen Santilli and several influential lobbyists to an event to announce more details on the project. Most of the invited guests did not speak. Elorza told the crowd more neighborhood input is needed before the project can move forward.

And Paolino never got to the details.

Doug Victor, a longtime advocate for the Elmwood neighborhood, said no one from the community was invited to speak. Gerard Catala, an activist and former candidate for City Council, drew cheers when he suggested too many social service programs have been moved “from the more affluent communities” to the South Side.

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After the press conference, Raimondo told WPRO-AM’s Dan Yorke she wants to eliminate homelessness, but suggested Paolino “did not do a good enough job engaging the community prior to this announcement and he’s got his work cut out for him to convince the community that this is a good thing.”

For his part, Paolino said he’s not “tone-deaf” to the opposition.

“I think it’s accurate to say that anybody from the outside, it’s tough for them to trust, because they’ve been screwed so many times,” Paolino said.

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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