EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Dozens of homeless who formed a high-profile tent city called Camp Runamuck are packing up and moving for the second time this summer, facing a Tuesday deadline to clear out their latest campsite under an East Providence highway bridge.
The homeless were headed this weekend to two new locations, one a carefully selected plot of city-owned land near Roger Williams Medical Center in Providence, the other on private property in Providence.
Neither spot provides a permanent home for the roughly two dozen people who have been living under the I-195 Washington Bridge since being evicted from their first location in Providence earlier this summer. A lawyer for the city has already said any encampment on city land won’t be tolerated.
But residents said they hoped the sites will provide a reliable place to stay, and keep a spotlight on their plight, until they can find homes — or at least while the weather holds out.
“‘Tents’ is not the solution to homelessness,” said John Joyce, 46, who was homeless and helped found Camp Runamuck, but has since moved into a studio apartment. “This is probably the best option for the community right now.”
Joyce said the group’s leadership deliberately decided to return to Providence. Last month, even as they reached a settlement to leave state land by noon Tuesday, the group filed a lawsuit against the city saying it was obligated to provide for the poor and indigent under a law that hasn’t been used since 1873.
“The community isn’t your stereotypical guy laying down on Skid Row anymore,” Joyce said. “They’re intelligent professionals, craftsmen. They fell on hard times. They’re speaking out finally.”
Providence officials have asked the court to dismiss the suit. Kevin F. McHugh, senior assistant city solicitor, said the city has no obligation to provide space for the group. He warned that any settlements on private land would have to comply with zoning laws, and said anyone camping on public land would face problems from the city.
“We’re certainly not going to allow anyone to set up a camp on city land,” McHugh said.
About a dozen people will leave the East Providence encampment and set up tents on the private property, an undisclosed spot near downtown Providence, residents said. The rest will go to the city site, which is near two bus lines and an existing shelter, they said.
On Friday, residents were packing up the sprawling settlement, which earlier in the week had included two dozen tents, grills, a large kitchen area, portable toilet, trash area and couches.
Many residents aren’t happy about moving again. Their current campsite under the bridge offers freedom from restrictive shelter rules, such as curfews, as well as fresh air and safety in numbers.
“Everybody down here’s happy. It’s a family,” said Mike MacEwan, 35, who has lived in Camp Runamuck since the beginning. He and his girlfriend of three years, Sandy Peterson, 23, prefer to live in the tent city because most Rhode Island shelters don’t let them stay together.
“My thing is, I want to live,” he said. “I don’t like the fact that at 6 p.m., I can’t talk to her.”
Richard Jackson, 43, has been living in the camp since June after he lost his apartment in Cranston in a dispute with his landlord. He was looking forward to moving with his girlfriend to the private land.
Jackson complained about violence in the camp, which he said was caused by excessive drinking. He hoped that wouldn’t be a problem on the private land because no alcoholics will be allowed.
“The guy’s giving us a chance on this private property,” Jackson said. “We’re trying to get our lives together.”
Jackson, who wouldn’t say where the land was or who owned it, said the private encampment was enclosed by a fence with a single entrance, which is important for security. He said it will have a canopy-covered kitchen area, portable toilet and large trash bin.
The site is also close to several bus lines and to Crossroads Rhode Island, a nonprofit group that provides showers, mail and other services to the state’s homeless population, he said. Jackson said they were trying to see if the city would pick up the trash.
Joyce and others considered several sites before selecting the city property, in part because Joyce believes the city will not be able to remove the homeless from the land. He said there’s no city ordinance against camping, and because the site is not in a park, there’s no curfew.
Bruce Yeoman must move to the city property because he’s a self-described alcoholic and not allowed on the private land. But Yeoman, a former day care owner, factory worker and musician, said he’s worried the city-owned site is too close to a residential area and that people will complain.
“Nobody wants us in their backyard,” he said. “Nobody wants us around.”