Daniel Lawlor: Chilly in March: Remembering Homelessness Advocates

Monday, March 18, 2013


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Dan Lawlor reflects on the loss of David "Doc" St. Germaine and John Joyce and the impact both had on fighting homelessness in RI.

Something is not right in Rhode Island, and hasn't been for a while. Since the banking crisis, Rhode Island's homeless population has been ever rising.

In the last few years, two dynamic voices for the homeless in Rhode Island have been silenced - David "Doc" St. Germaine and John Joyce. 

Each was a charismatic, kind, resolute soul who inspired numerous Rhode Islanders to rise up and make changes. Each suffered with medical problems. Doc passed away in suicide, unable to get help through the mishaps of the medical system, John died of cancer, still looking over the state budget and seeing how it would effect those on the street. 

The last few years have been marked by school closings, perpetual joblessness, increased gambling, a steady stream of strip clubs, high HIV rates among male prostitues along Allens Ave., fifty year old Rhode Islanders desperate for work, and an exodus of people from the state. We might lose a House seat in the next census if the trend continues. Unless you run Rhode Island, or are in some of the core big sectors, this state is in a rut. 

Just as an example, while downtown is becoming more posh, small businesses in the Valley neighborhood deal regularly with robberies and hold-ups. As Mayor Taveras has said before, "too many" homes are still in foreclosure and vacant. 

Providence has a great deal of "vibrancy" - yet we need more than good times to help people get ahead.

A UTNE article recently mentioned , "It is time to acknowledge the truth: that our leaders have nothing to say, really, about any of this. They have nothing to suggest, really, to Cairo, Illinois, or St. Joseph, Missouri. They have no comment to make, really, about the depopulation of the countryside or the deindustrialization of the Midwest. They have nothing to offer, really, but the same suggestions, gussied up with a new set of cliches. They have no idea what to do for places or people that aren't already successful or that have no prospects of ever becoming cool."

There are thousands of homeless people in Rhode Island, and according to the RI Coalition for the homeless there is a 419 bed shortfall in the shelter system. The Latino Policy Institute and Housing Works RI have found the jobless rate among Latinos to be 20%. There are just over 500 empty homes in Providence, let alone vacant storefronts or former Catholic school buildings like Holy Name in Mt. Hope or Holy Ghost on Federal Hill.

After Doc's suicide, Rev Duane Clinker, of the Open Table of Christ wrote, "Despite mobility issues and the fact that his address was a one room apartment at Crossroads, David would put precious dollars for gas in his beat up car to get to the State House to demand justice for veterans and others caught on the street; travel to street demonstrations in his beat up Red Sox hat to add one more number to those calling for peace, justice, mercy, or all of the above. He advocated for anyone being beat up by life."

Martha Yager, with the American Friends Service Committee, wrote a reflection on Doc's commitment to justice and spirituality (he was a practicing Unitarian), writing, "I remember him looking at me, tears pooling in his eyes, and asking if I knew that there was human trafficking in Providence. It hurt him deeply that people could be caught in such a degrading situation right in front of us and people were looking the other way."

John Joyce's recent passing led writers at Street Sights to reflect, "He was never one to take no for an answer just because something had never been done. Be it the hate crime legislation, the State House Soup Kitchen, the Homeless Bill of Rights, or advocating for someone in court, his love for his fellow human beings was always his driving force. You always knew where John stood on an issue."

I recall John speaking loudly at the signing ceremony for the Homeless Bill of Rights this past summer. I remember him speaking to the crowd "I love RI. I was born here, I will die here. RI just became the first state in the country to ban discrimination against the homeless. May it be the first state to end homelessness... Be safe."

"Doc" and John struggled for the same cause- the dignity of people. At root, both had the radical notion that all humans deserve a safe home. The Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless has a practical agenda to help make housing for all a reality. Check it out here.

We have to be the voices and votes for reform. 


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