The parking lot at the Broadway Bubble laundromat may seem an unexpected ground zero in the Kingston housing crisis. Yet dramatic events have been unfolding here all month: Cease-and-desist letters, a trespassing arrest, a dismantled homeless encampment, and most recently, an organized protest.
At the center of the controversy are two nonprofit organizations that are a study in contrasts. The People’s Cauldron (TPC) is a small, grassroots, religious non-profit dedicated to being on the street providing food, clothing, herbal medicine, and harm reduction aid directly to Kingston’s most marginalized people. The NoVo Foundation is a multimillion-dollar non-profit that has allocated tens of millions of dollars to a range of community-oriented projects within Kingston and the surrounding area. It’s run by Peter Buffett (son of Warren Buffett) and his wife.
In a March 18 interview, Buffett referred to Broadway Bubble as “ground zero in the best sense of the word” for NoVo’s work towards connecting directly with the community it has been pouring millions into shaping. When the laundromat’s previous owners said they were shutting down and selling to a developer last year, NoVo renovated the building into a laundromat and community space that Buffett described as “a container” built “to allow things to happen in the community that might not otherwise be possible, or people wouldn’t be paying attention to in some way.”
Friday afternoon, about 15 protesters gathered outside the “container” in a protest organized by local activists and advocates for the homeless. The group was drawing attention to an issue to which they feel people have not been paying sufficient attention: NoVo’s alleged about-face toward members of Kingston’s homeless community and their support network. Protesters held signs like “Novo put$ profit$ over people” and “This ain’t Buffettown.” Sporadic honks from passing vehicles energized the small group.
None present cared to comment on the situation, instead referring in solidarity to official statements issued by The People’s Cauldron.
Ironically, part of NoVo’s original vision for community outreach on Broadway was to fund some of the same people present at Friday’s protest. According to federal income tax forms, NoVo gave $150,000 to TPC over 2019-2020. TPC used part of this funding to acquire a bus with which to dispense free resources and parked it in the Broadway Bubble lot, which is adjacent to a long-time homeless encampment.
That’s when staff for NoVo told members of the press that trouble began. They alleged TPC’s presence in the parking lot was concurrent with a spike in criminal behavior involving drugs, harassment and even violence.
In a statement, TPC countered: “NoVo’s assertion that the presence of a free herbal clinic could increase the rates of violent crimes or drug use is absurd.”
TPC further alleges that NoVo ignored requests to legitimize their outreach activity with the proper insurance paperwork, and subsequently began a campaign of harassment that led to a building department violation, a cease-and-desist letter, the dismantling of the homeless encampment behind the laundromat, and the trespassing arrest of a TPC member.
NoVo has denied allegations of harassment, saying it simply responded to the violation issued by the city’s building department. The trespassing arrest on a TPC member, NoVo spokeswoman Megan Weiss-Rowe claimed in a statement, was only escalated to a criminal complaint “after all other options to address this situation were exhausted.”
TPC, in a statement, disagreed. “NoVo is attempting to shape the narrative around their work, painting a picture that leaves out the negative impacts on the lives of those who they claim to prioritize,” the statement said. “An organization that claims to fight for social-justice issues should not then be using police violence to harass vulnerable people struggling with a lack of housing access.”
At the protest, NoVo employees were seen mingling amicably with rally attendees, a testament to the community’s unique and ongoing struggle to remain unified in the face of existential threats such as Kingston’s housing crisis and the outsized influence of big money.
Both TPC and NoVo present the best of intentions to the public. The former is perceived as building bottom-up from the streets, whereas the latter is often seen as building top-down from think tanks.
Will the collision of these two approaches surface a viable solution, or is the writing (or rather, the art mural) on the wall in regard to continued gentrification?
The community anxiously awaits an answer. Especially those who have no home to return to.