SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — This town has a small off-the-grid community within the community. It might be called a “tent community,” where the homeless live either alone or in small clusters in the woods year-round.
It is a community that town officials acknowledge exists, but they don’t attempt to chase out or disperse because its inhabitants have nowhere else to go. Area food pantries and social service organizations reach out to help, but only when the homeless seek the help.
Those who have talked with these itinerant tent residents say most refuse help. They prefer their South County frontier life over the common notion homeless people need assistance. The tents, in fact, are these squatters’ homes even though they are on borrowed property.
The Story of John
“I do this on my own choice. I’m not forced to do this. If I really, really wanted to, I could rent a room somewhere. I just don’t want to,” said John, who didn’t want to give his last name.
“I wouldn’t mind my name in the paper and picture, but it’s just the fact of living here in town my whole entire life. My family is big time in this area,” he said in an interview with The Independent.
He said he has been living in the woods in South Kingstown for about nearly three years and this is his second time doing it.
His tent is a considerable distance from an enclave of five others off of Kingstown Road and about four or five others in a wooded area off Point Judith Road in Narragansett. Local ordinances prohibit setting up of tent sites and sleeping overnight in town parks and private land is governed by owners’ giving permission.
John, 54, readily says he has diagnosed mental health problems, has had addiction issues for more than 40 years and now is one year and four months into his latest attempt at recovery.
“I used to rent a room from a friend of mine’s mother, but when she died, I left because the house was a real bad drug house. I can’t be around people because I get influenced too easy,” he said.
This woodlands lifestyle suits his mental attitude toward life right now, he said.
He doesn’t believe that people trying to help him truly understand his choice, John added. He said he believes his decision is sane and rational, and he added that he even talks with a psychiatrist about it once every six or so months for a psychiatric disorder and to continue his disability payments.
“I don’t want to be under anyone’s thumb. I don’t want to impose. I like being in the woods. I like feeding the deer. I feed a couple of foxes and stuff, you know. This is just how I am,” he said.
John said he lives on $832 a month from federal Social Security disability. It goes first and foremost taking care of Ginger, his 14-year-old beagle companion whom he trollies around in a dog trailer behind his bicycle.
That care includes Ginger’s food and veterinarian bills because the dog has advanced diabetes, he said.
The remaining amount goes for some food for himself, though he also gets provisions from food pantries, propane and a fee for a storage unit where he keeps whatever doesn’t come to the woods with him, he said.
John said he was commercial fisherman for many years, but his drinking, drugs, occasional violent habits and other offenses got him into trouble. These also estranged him from his two children, a 35-year-old son and 25-year-old daughter, he said.
“I haven’t seen him since he was three. He said he wants nothing to do with me. He said I tried to kill his mother,” John said, pausing before the follow-up question about whether that is true.
“Yes, I did. I came home and found her with another man and I got out my shotgun and shot at them both,” said the man claiming to have been married three times. On his arm, he said, is a tattoo portrait of his daughter.
“I don’t know what the hell happened to her. Me and her used to be real close until she moved to Florida. She’s her own person and she has her own life and I try not to let it bother me,” he said.
John also admitted he suffers from a delusional disorder and facts are not always correct or scenes all the time remembered correctly. Yet, many facts he tells about his life, though, check out correctly.
Other Tent Sites
This is part of the issue, say mental health and community health experts, who deal with the homeless, especially those living outside. Some respond to questions when approached, others do not, and information provided may be sketchy, they said.
A week ago, Joe “Tiger” Patrick, commander of the South Kingstown Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 916, went looking for homeless people in tents in the woods off Kingstown Road. He wanted to see whether any veterans needed assistance.
Nearly a mile or so back into the woods, a green, camouflage, medium-sized tent was pitched under a tree. Its opening was zipped. A blue tarp lay nearby. A black bag appeared dropped just a short distance, perhaps when someone heard the approach of visitors.
He called out, but no one answered. The hike continued. Soon another tent, with a second blue tarp covering it to keep out the cold, appeared in a clearing. A plastic bag was at the door. A clothes line hung between two nearby trees.
Again, no answer. Other tents were also scattered through the woods.
“If these people need something, I’d like to help them,” said Patrick, whose VFW Post at 155 High St. has a roadside food pantry for people.
James Kerns, executive director of the Welcome House, a shelter at 8 North Road for homeless people, said that he visited these pop-up tent sites and others in Narragansett during the last two years for the January Point-In-Time Count.
It is an annual survey of homeless individuals in the United States conducted by local agencies called Continuums of Care on behalf of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“Most want to be there. When people get exhausted, they just say ‘I’ll go live in a tent – No rules, it’s easier.’ I don’t think the cops give them too much of a hard time unless they are putting themselves in danger and would not have access to help if they needed it,” he said.
Robert Zarnetske, South Kingstown town manager, agreed.
“We are aware they are there. Whenever police become aware that public safety is compromised, we have to take action,” he said.
Police Chief Sean Corrigan in Narragansett said that the tent enclaves in his town appear periodically and police will do wellness checks if an issue is reported to the department.
In South Kingstown, Police Chief Joel Ewing-Chow said that his department usually gets calls regarding the tent camp sites in the Kingstown Road area during the warmer weather. Police have also found old camp sites that have been abandoned, he added.
“Our agency is sympathetic to those who may not have the ability or resources to find adequate shelter. We try and suggest the Welcome House as a possible location for housing,” the chief said.
Zarnetske said that tent residents’ individual choices to live in the woods, regardless of the time of year, need to be understood both in a mental-health context and a personal freedom decision.
A community mental health agency is the most appropriate agency to deal with that situation, he said, adding that he is including proposed funds in his budget blueprint for next year to establish it.
That agency can review the many facets of the situation far better than one path of intervention by a single town agency, such as police if it is a matter of just moving someone off of public land, he added.
“Some people have mental health crises in the woods every day in any number of forms. We need to make sure there is a mechanism in place to ensure those crises are not disastrous,” he said.
For John, who lives in the woods off Kingstown Road, he appreciates that thoughtfulness, but doesn’t see himself impoverished and said he believes others’ lives are more troubled than his.
He echoed his late grandmother who he said once admonished him, “Look around, you think you have it bad off, what about a person in wheel chair that don’t have legs, can’t move their legs, their arms, don’t have any body functions.”
“I’m like any other human being, I have problems. I’ve tried to mask my feelings behind booze, drugs, whatever, so I don’t have to think about my problems,” he said.