Stephen Brady insists things are different this time.
Business owners and residents of the Broadway neighborhood in Newport have vented for years about the crimes that occur almost daily on the street—panhandling, drinking, sleeping in public, outdoor urination. But at a June community meeting at the Newport Police Department, Brady stood up and proposed a solution that he says had long been on people's minds, but was never truly taken seriously before now: moving the McKinney Shelter out of downtown.
"It's time for the location of that facility to be changed," said Brady, who has owned property on Broadway for 29 years. "It might sound crazy, and I've heard it can't be done, but it's my position that it's appropriate, not to hurt or eliminate services, but to find an alternative location."
Once that discussion was sparked, the issue was brought to the surface yet again and a series of community meetings were planned. At the most recent on July 20, four city council members, municipal court Judge Russell Jackson, City Manager Edward Lavallee, City Solicitor Joe Nicholson, state Rep. Peter Martin and representatives from the Newport County Community Mental Health Center attended and offered their insights into what can and can't be done.
A number of Broadway business owners and residents were also there, as were a few members of the street's homeless population. The general consensus among many was that the short-term efforts that have been made—increasing police enforcement, raising fines and penalties—aren't the only answer.
"The folks we're talking about, many are judgment proof," Jackson said. "They have no money to pay the fines. I have the authority to send them to 30 days of incarceration, but most would do the time and come back."
"It's easy to get them treated, but when they let them out, they've got no place to go," added Cheryl Robinson, president of Turning Around Ministries. "It's hard. You have to build relationships with people and it takes money. Unless you invest in the problem, not the symptom, then they're going to come back and do it again."
Brady says that's why he wants to look beyond the quick fixes and focus on his single long-term goal of getting the McKinney Shelter out of 50 Washington Square, and into a new location that can better accommodate the people it serves. Doing so, he said, would "plug" the problem on Broadway, those who wander up and down the street daily, while getting those individuals the help they need—a win-win for everybody. Brady envisions the shelter moving into a new state-of-the-art facility, one that offers more services and better care. He knows that will take money, but Brady said he's confident the money is there, should they create the right package.
"This time, we're not trying to get it done, we're insisting," he said one recent afternoon at the Hungry Monkey, which sits in one of the two properties he owns downtown. "I am so confident this is going to happen, and it's going to benefit everybody."
Multiple obstacles stand in the way, including a long-term lease on the property that won't expire for decades. But Brady isn't letting that stop him. He reports that he's been working almost daily to gather more information about the shelter—who owns it, where the money comes from, what the options are on the lease. Another community meeting was scheduled for tonight, Aug. 10, but Brady has postponed that until closer to Labor Day because he says it's been difficult to get people together since so many are on vacation.
The downtown property owner said his next step is talking to officials at the state level, including those from the Secretary of State's office, Rhode Island Housing and the governor's office. Brady said if representatives from these departments can't attend the next meeting, he hopes at the very least that they'll be able to help him gather more information about what realistically can be done.
"Opportunities, that's what we're looking for," he said.
Brady says he and those who support the idea recognize the role the McKinney Shelter plays in Newport, and that the last thing they are trying to do is eliminate services from those who need them. But they also recognize the problems on that street that have plagued them for years.
"We're just gathering information right now," Brady said. "It's a constant learning curve, and if we get away from that, we'll be giving up. Where will we be 30 days from now? Who knows? That's not the point. The point is we want to make that location have a completely different use. I've said a 5-star hotel. Why not?"