On December 30, 2016, Joe Paolino bought the mostly abandoned St. Joseph Hospital in South Providence from CharterCare Health. His plan is to partner with some of the city’s biggest and best-known non-profits to provide a one-stop comprehensive package of support services to city residents who need them.
“Our grand hope is that this will be a major step in addressing the homeless and related panhandling problems in our city that will help the downtown area, the city as a whole and most importantly those so in need of these services,” Paolino says.
“I feel more excited about buying St. Joseph Hospital than I was [about] 100 Westminster.” He admits rehabbing St. Joseph will be expensive, at least $10 million and possibly much more. He is just beginning to put his project together and that it will require buy-in from a wide range of partners from the state, the city, foundations, non-profits and the community. Annual operating costs will also be challenging, “but we have to start somewhere and this is a viable solution.”
While the assembling of partners is just beginning, Paolino expects them to include well established service providers like Crossroads, Amos House, the Providence Center, Clothes for Kids (Eva Mancuso), job training opportunities, a fitness center and a movie theatre. CharterCare Health will continue to operate out of the building they have been using and provide comprehensive medical care.
With his purchase of St. Joseph, Paolino hopes he and a partnership of non-profits and the state are headed towards improving the situation. He does admit though, that the issue and its evolution have been an eye-opening experience for him. “This a very serious problem and I’ve been working with experienced people on creating a solution that may have national implications,” says Paolino.
“The message to me is clear. We need more beds, not sidewalks. More tables, not trashcans. More social workers not policemen.”
The St. Joseph Hospital property is an 11-acre complex on Broad Street with magnificent views of the entire city. From the patio on the eighth floor, where the nuns used to contemplate while enjoying sun, one can see as far as the Mt. Hope and the Newport bridges. The main building has been essentially mothballed for over eight years and requires extensive upgrading, major repairs and a lot of TLC. The property is valued by the City at over $52,000,000 with a replacement cost of $117,887,843.
CharterCare Health care will remain as a tenant and operate the St. Joseph Health Center Partners, providing full medical care to 50,000 children, adults and families each year.
As the head of the Downtown Business District, Paolino has recently been at the forefront of trying to seek out solutions to what has become an unacceptable rise in urban issues downtown. “It started with an ordinance passed to prohibit smoking in the park and it pushed smokers to all of the sidewalks in front of the buildings,” he explains. “It was so bad that we had to have people walking around to keep the sidewalks in front of our buildings smoke-free so people could avoid a cloud to get inside.”
And, then suddenly there was an explosion of panhandling everywhere and not just downtown. “On virtually every street corner in and out of downtown there were people asking for money,” says Paolino. “It created traffic issues if people stopped and it created an unwelcome atmosphere for business.”
“I gave the mayor what I thought was a legal road map to follow on panhandling that protects lives, cleans up our city’s center and eliminates what is harmful to commerce and our image to outsiders,” he says. The mayor disagreed and soon the two, unable to agree on a solution, had dueling press conferences.
It also produced a backlash against the Paolino approach, which produced protesters who felt as the city’s major commercial owner, he had not done enough to really help solve the problem. EcoRI News called him out and charged “by not developing any housing for middle or low income people, he actually was part of the problem.”
The goals of the St. Joseph Hospital project are lofty and, Paolino admits, expensive. It is being undertaken with the intent to offer housing, healthcare and valuable services to homeless veterans, not just in Providence but statewide. He hopes to partner with Providence’s social service agencies to create a shared vision for the facility that incorporates their missions and goals into the day-to-day operations of the building and to provide non-denominational faith services provided by a diverse array of faith leaders. His dream is to create a model partnership that can be replicated nationwide by cities as a means to reduce overall homelessness. The goal, ultimately, is to address and eliminate chronic homelessness in Providence through comprehensive outreach and housing strategies.
After touring the building, Paolino and his staff termed the bones of the building as “rock solid” and agreed that it lent itself well to “adaptive reuse.” The ten-story building also provided some unexpectedly gorgeous views of both the neighborhood and Paolino’s buildings downtown.
He says that former First Lady, Stephanie Chafee, who co-founded the Rhode Island Free Clinic has already expressed interest in helping. Possible funding options may include the voter-approved $50 million bond for affordable housing. The Rhode Island Foundation and Downtown businesses have already raised $350,000.