Providence, Rhode Island Mayor Jorge Elorza is pushing back on a downtown smoking ban ordinance that he says unfairly discriminates against the homeless.
Elorza claims that an added section in the “Streets, Sidewalks and Public Places” ordinance prohibiting smoking from Fulton Street to Westminster Street by Kennedy Plaza will mainly impact the homeless who hang out by the bus terminal area.
“While this ordinance is ostensibly about smoking, its true target is the homeless community,” Elorza wrote in a letter to the council on June 2 after deciding to veto the amendment, adding “it is bad policy to criminalize poverty.”
Yet the Providence City Council rejected the veto and voted to adopt the smoking ban provision a few weeks later, causing Elorza to release a statement calling it “a bill that transparently criminalizes poverty.”
“The enforcement of this ordinance is not a solution and it does nothing to address the problem … I will continue to work with our community partners to advocate for more effective solutions that do not target the homeless and poor,” Elorza said.
Supporting his decision to reject the ordinance were several organizations and advocacy groups, including the ACLU of Rhode Island, the Homeless Bill of Rights Committee and the state’s Homeless Advocacy Project Director Barbara Freitas, who penned the letter addressed to the mayor.
Freitas said the ordinance “will be disproportionately used against the poor and the homeless in an attempt to displace them from this public downtown area.”
“First the council banned smoking in the nearby public parks in an attempt to move the homeless away from those areas.” Freitas continued, “Council members now seek to move the homeless away from the Kennedy Plaza area as well.”
ACLU of Rhode Island Executive Director Steven Brown said “there’s no question” that the ban targets the homeless.
“Concerns have been raised about homeless people in Kennedy Plaza for a while now, and this has been pushed by a person who owns a lot of buildings around that area, so I don’t think there are any question about the motivation around it,” Brown said. “We and other organizations will monitor the implementation of the ordinance and whether it’s equally enforced or used to single out the homeless.”
Eric Hirsch, government relations chair of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, who works with the Rhode Island Homeless Bill of Rights Defense Committee and is a sociology professor at Providence College, agreed that the ban would disproportionately affect the homeless and said many were being arrested and ticketed in the past at Kennedy Plaza.
Students from Hirsch’s class surveyed the area in late 2015 and found that almost half of the people there were homeless or formerly homeless and 95 percent of the group had been cited for activities, including aggressive panhandling and loitering in the past.
“It was almost exclusively homeless and formerly homeless people who were being ticketed for these things,” Hirsch said. “And as a result of this [survey], the mayor to his credit agreed to stop enforcing those laws on aggressive panhandling and loitering.”
Hirsch said the new ordinance should not be enforced because it has backing from no one and is a way to get around the law to target homeless people specifically, including Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare and Providence Chief of Police Hugh Clements, Jr.
“People are still looking for ways to outlaw homeless and poor people being in public spaces. The latest example of that in Providence is an anti-smoking ordinance,” Hirsch said. “Somewhere around 80 percent of homeless people smoke so it’s another substitute law to try to remove poor and homeless people from Kennedy Plaza.”
Victor Morente, press secretary for the mayor, cited studies from the Public Health Law Center, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Journal of Preventative Medicine that say people in lower income brackets are more likely to be smokers.
Hirsch and ACLU Director Steve Brown said Providence developers and Joe Paolino, Jr. specifically were behind the ban to keep the homeless away from their properties.
Paolino, former mayor of Providence and managing partner of a holding company that owns and manages buildings throughout the state and city, said his backing of the ban is not a targeted attack but is meant to ensure that the smoking ban in parks is equally enforced throughout Kennedy Plaza.
“I’ve gotten complaints from tenants of mine in buildings that I own that are not happy about it either,” Paolino said. “So this is not just hitting the homeless … All of Kennedy Plaza should be treated as one park, and I think what’s happened is some independent organizations think a change on something is an assault, and it’s not. If anything, this is an improvement; it’s trying to bring conformity to a park.”
Paolino, who chairs the downtown improvement district in Providence, said the ban brings “consistency, logic and common sense to the process,” despite what the mayor said.
Yet Hirsch and Brown said they will closely monitor the consequences of the ban. Hirsch is hoping that it is not enforced.
“I feel that the mayor doesn’t want homeless people harassed in Kennedy Plaza. I believe him, but sometimes it’s difficult to get the rank-and-file police to follow orders from above,” Hirsch said. “We’re still hoping to get the city to not enforce the anti-smoking ordinance. We’ll just have to wait and see with that.”