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RI Occupy to leave park if city opens shelter

By Erika Niedowski
Associated Press / December 21, 2011
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PROVIDENCE, R.I.—The Occupy Providence movement against economic inequality on Wednesday narrowly approved a proposal to dismantle its tent city downtown as soon as a day shelter for the homeless is opened in the city.

The group voted 36-11 at its General Assembly meeting to endorse the proposal, which calls for activists to leave Burnside Park, where they have had an encampment since Oct. 15 against the city's wishes, after a temporary day shelter for homeless people has been opened. An earlier version of the proposal called for the group to break camp as of Jan. 2 if the city merely agreed to open the shelter, which would supplement existing facilities.

The proposal required a three-fourths majority, 35 votes, to pass.

Some protesters who opposed the proposal called it "disempowering" and argued they should leave only on their own terms -- not because the city agreed to take some action. Activist Susan Beaty said she didn't think the two issues on the table -- leaving the park and pushing for a day shelter -- should be linked.

"We shouldn't be leaving the park until we know where we're going," she added.

But others said maintaining a winter encampment would be difficult and there may not be enough support to do so.

Activist Mike McCarthy, who authored the proposal, said the ball is now in the city's court. While many details surrounding a day center's opening remain to be worked out, he said homeless service organizations have expressed willingness to help make it happen.

"It can be done, if the will is there," McCarthy said. "There are institutions willing to run the day center if the city is willing to open one."

The Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless' executive director, Jim Ryczek, said Tuesday that his organization would help facilitate its opening but would not operate it.

Occupy Providence has suggested the day center would be largely run by volunteers.

Mayor Angel Taveras' spokesman David Ortiz said this week the city would not comment until after the proposal is formally delivered to the city.

The protesters, who have been complaining about and trying to draw attention to issues including homelessness and foreclosures, ignored an Oct. 30 deadline to leave Burnside Park, and the city threatened -- but did not take -- legal action. The two sides have been in mediation.

Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare, who attended the meeting, stressed that the occupation cannot go on indefinitely, and he said he is hopeful the city can agree to the proposal -- or parts of it.

"If we can accept it in whole or in part," he said, "then that's what we'll do."

McCarthy, the activist behind the proposal, called the group's vote to leave a "moot point" if the city doesn't move forward on the day shelter.

"I think people are inclined to stay until they see the results they're looking for," he said.

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