Keeping an eye on Kennedy Plaza

Providence, RI – Kennedy plaza is mostly a bus terminal, but not everyone at the Providence transportation hub is there to catch a ride. It's also a gathering spot for people with nowhere to go. WRNI's health care reporter Megan Hall checks in with a team devoted to giving the folks that linger a bit of assistance.

On a hot sunny afternoon, Jimmy Plante stands in the middle of Kennedy Plaza, scanning the crowd.

Plante is an outreach worker with The Providence Center. He helps connect people here with mental health and addiction treatment. He also just keeps an eye on folks that might be getting themselves into trouble.

Plante turns his head towards a bus across the plaza. It's a bus driver yelling at two teenagers. A few police officers gather around the bus to calm down the situation, but Plante is watching someone else- a man he calls John, who's walked right into the conflict.

"Depending upon what he's gonna do, I might have to go in there and try to get him out of the situation so he doesn't get in trouble and get incarcerated," he says.

John is one of Plante's clients- a regular at Kennedy plaza who struggles with mental illness. He watches as John talks with the angry bus driver, for no reason. Plante says a lot of his clients insert themselves into fights.

"Sometimes it's part of their illness," Plante explains. "Sometimes they're just nosy and they want to get involved. They have their own opinion, their own views, and their social boundaries aren't always the best."

Plante is here to try to keep those sorts of behaviors under control. He's part of a team doing what it can to keep the people loitering in Kennedy Plaza out of jail.

Dane Shillan is Kennedy plaza's park ranger and it's his job to protect the property and maintain security in the area. He says he does everything he can to avoid getting people arrested.

"If two people are doing something that maybe disorderly, we try to get in the middle, stop everything, try to talk em down," he says. "Next thing you know they're all hugging and kissing and walking away and everything's fine and no one has to go to jail."

Shillan is here every day helping folks at Kennedy Plaza kiss and make up. Jimmy Plante with The Providence Center is here one day a week. The rest of the time he's on call- Shillan lets him know whenever he spots a mental health emergency. Last month, they added two probation officers to their team to keep track of people on probation and parole.

Heidi DuPerry is one of the probation officers. She spots one of her parolees walking around the bus terminal. "He told me he was working from 12:30 to 8:30," she says. "He's a little late if he's going at all."

Plante estimates that most of the folks that loiter around Kennedy Plaza have criminal records, including Elwood Nickerson. Nickerson comes to Kennedy Plaza almost every day.

"I have a little girlfriend down here," he says. " We just sit and have coffee some days and do whatever."

He's been incarcerated, has a history of drug abuse and struggles with schizophrenia, but he says thanks to people like Jimmy Plante, he's straightened out his life.

Plante says police officers would rather see people like Nickerson go somewhere else. But that's not an easy task. The bus station is where everyone ends up as they wait for rides to homeless shelters or social services. Park ranger Dane Shillan says it's all too attractive to linger, especially for people with drug addictions.

"If you're a known drug addict, and you're clean and you're walking through here, people will come up and say do you want this, do you want that?'" he says. "It's like a kid being in a candy store. It's only so many times that they say, yeah, give me some candy.'"

Shillan and Jimmy Plante from the Providence Center are both members of a coalition of business owners, arts organizations, and the city working to revamp Kennedy plaza. Among the initiatives is a plan to scale down and decentralize the bus station so it's no longer the drop off location for nearly every bus route in the state.

"Things have been discussed about changing traffic patterns, moving buses out to different areas," Jimmy Plante says. "to separate the crowds so we don't have the typical, let's hang out here all day."

Maybe then it won't be as appealing for folks like Elwood Nickerson to camp out at Kennedy plaza. Regardless, Plante, Shillan, and the probation officers will continue to do the incremental work of resolving conflicts, offering services, and turning people who hang out into people who ride buses.

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