No good deed goes unpunished. Joe Paolino relearned this lesson the hard way today when he formally announced his plan to turn part of St. Joseph’s Hospital in South Providence into 140 affordable housing units for homeless and indigent people.
As it turns out, residents of the Elmwood Avenue area don’t want hundreds of homeless people relocated to their neighborhood.
“What our city and state need more than anything else is affordable and accessible housing,” Paolino said at a media event that turned into a shouting match. He was interrupted by someone who said, “All on the South Side, right?”
Continually as Paolino and others tried to explain the idea to the press and the public, they were interrupted by angry residents who don’t want their neighborhood to become ground zero for Rhode Island’s homeless population.
Governor Gina Raimondo was slated to speak, and was at the event, but disappeared when the crowd became rowdy. Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza was unable to mollify them.
“Listen to me,” Elorza said over the crowd. “Yesterday I had a conversation with Mr. Paolino and I insisted that if I was going to be here that he had to be genuinely committed to a process that engages the community so that residents of this neighborhood can determine what happens in this building.”
Someone from the crowd yelled back, “The deal’s already been done!”
Even Joe Buck, a pillar of the South Providence community, couldn’t convince them to keep an open mind.
Paolino eventually let the members of the public speak.
South Side politicians seemed united against the project. Providence City Councilor Mary Kay Harris is opposed, as are Representative Grace Diaz and Senators Harold Metts and Ana Quezada.
After the meeting, Quezada told me she is “completely opposed to it. We understand it’s a big issue with homelessness in Rhode Island and in Providence but we want to share the responsibility among the whole city, not just the South Side. We have Crossroads, we have the McCauley House, we have Amos House. We feel that we are the dumping place of the city. Nobody else wants it so they bring it to this neighborhood.”
The legislators said they weren’t previously apprised of the project. “Something as big as this and they didn’t let anybody know.” Quezada said. “That’s why I’m so upset, even us elected officials we didn’t know about it.”
She added, “We not going to compromise, not with this. We don’t want it here. We’re not going to change today, we’re not going to change tomorrow and we’re not going to change in the future.”
Alfreda Moore, who lives down the street from St. Joseph’s Hospital, said affordable housing for indigent people will adversely affect the neighborhood she raises her children in.
“We worked very hard in building the neighborhood and making it better without prostitution and drug dealing and other crimes,” she said. “This will not help the neighborhood. This is a first step, us being here.”
Moore suggested the state or Paolino consider buying the old Ladd School in Exeter instead. She said her neighborhood is just coming into its own – she spoke of a new park, across the street from the hospital that the city recently rehabilitated that has become a safe area for children to play.
Paolino promised the project will consider the needs of the neighborhood. “We must work with our neighborhood groups to ensure that we share a vision that will result in a facility that is an asset to this area.”
Hen envisions a space with health services, community rooms, and even indoor hydroponic gardens where residents could grow their own food. He wants it to be a model for the rest of the country.
St. Joseph’s Hospital is not going away as a result of the idea. Instead it would become a Paolino tenant and expand some services.
“We are grateful that Mr. Paolino’s vision for housing mirrors our longstanding committment to the South Providence community,” said John Holiver, CEO of CharterCARE, which runs the hospital. “Now, as a leading tenant in this new project, we are excited by the opportunity to expand our network of pediatric and adult primary care, as well as specialty health services.”