Advocates want to end homelessness, close Harrington Hall


“Close Harrington Hall,” Senator John Tassoni told more than 400 gathered yesterday at the Crowne Plaza for the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless 2012 awards luncheon.

The crowd responded with a round of applause and cheers.

“I implore every one of you to take a drive through the Pastore Complex,” Tassoni continued. “It’s horrific. You wouldn’t even want your dogs to sleep there; and these are human beings. It’s not right.”

Harrington Hall, run by the House of Hope CDC, is the short-term, 88-bed, men’s shelter in the John O. Pastore Complex in Cranston. Homeless advocates present at the luncheon don’t want to close the shelter and see those who sleep there thrown out onto the streets; they want to relocate the men’s shelter to the former Gloria McMahon women’s facility.

Despite the fact that the short-term shelter only offers cots and bunkbeds for 88 men, Harrington Hall typically accommodates 130 men each night. The overflow are forced to sleep on the floor or seated with their heads resting on tables. The shelter doesn’t have a kitchen and meals are delivered, but sometimes there isn’t enough food to go around. There are also only two bathrooms in the building.

Katheryn Tavares, communications manager for the House of Hope, said the organization has been working very closely with Tassoni, and agrees that it should be overhauled.

Harrington Hall, formerly an auditorium, was meant to stay open for a single winter. That was seven years ago, and since then the hall has been a fully operational night shelter. House of Hope took over the shelter in 2009.

By moving the shelter to the Gloria McDonald building, Tavares says House of Hope can offer the men more privacy as well as the potential for things like GED classes.

“The men would have rooms, two to four people in a room,” she said. “And we would love to use the [building’s] library to do GED coursework and offer case management and de-tox on site.”

Tavares said it would not only be a better building, but a better model for the shelter. As for right now, Tavares said the House of Hope is “doing the best we can.”

In addition to pushing for shelter improvements, Tassoni who was recognized at the luncheon for his homelessness advocacy, has introduced legislation regarding Rhode Island’s homeless.

He currently has a bill in the Senate that proposes a $75 million housing bond. Governor Lincoln Chafee has also proposed a bond for affordable housing in his budget, a gubernatorial first, but to the tune of $25 million.

“Governor, I’m at $75 million and you’re at $25 million, let’s settle at $50 million,” Tassoni said to cheers.

Other bills of interest to the coalition include the Homeless Bill of Rights, which would ensure homeless people maintain the same rights as other citizens, like the right to vote and receive equal treatment by police, employers and medical personnel.

Another piece of legislation, the “Just Cause” bill, would prohibit tenants from being evicted from rental property that is foreclosed on. It aims to put less people out on the streets.

“Today the story is that you have to have more income to rent a home than to buy one,” said Senator Jack Reed yesterday.

Advocates say more affordable housing is the solution, and are hoping for the aid of a dedicated funding stream or bond like Chafee’s.

“People from communities found themselves homeless in each of the 39 cities and towns last year,” said Jim Ryczek, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless. Ryczek said homelessness is not just an inner-city problem anymore.

Ryczek said it is imperative that those with the lowest levels of income have affordable housing available to them, a step he said will take “political will.”

Ryzcek said Harrington Hall has morphed from a short-term place to sleep to a permanent place to call home for many.

“It was never meant to be that way,” he said.

Jean Johnson, Executive Director of the House of Hope, told the story of Mr. Jones, a 77-year-old man that spent every night at Harrington Hall.

“He needed assistance,” she said. “He needed an intervention.”

But Jones never got the help he needed, and died two weeks ago after tripping getting off a RIPTA bus.

“He died homeless because he wasn’t given the key for an opportunity,” said Johnson.

Those who attended the luncheon received programs, some of which had keys taped inside. Ryczek asked those with a key in their program to stand.

“You represent the 40 percent that had an opportunity last year,” said Ryczek.

The others without keys represented the 60-percent of Rhode Islanders who were not granted an opportunity to find housing, and remained homeless.

“I thought being homeless meant having nowhere to go,” said Constance Vergowven, who spent time hopping from couch to couch at friend’s houses and didn’t consider herself homeless.

With the help of Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, Vergowven turned her life around, and now works for the Coalition as an administrative assistance and legal clinic coordinator.

Others joined Vergowven to tell their stories of success.

Ron Watts said that the coalition “showed me I was worth something, that I was important.”

He reminded those present that they could make a difference in someone else’s life.

“Anyone here can be the key for opening that door of hope for someone who might be going through what I went through,” he said.

The Coalition has four staff and three board members that were formerly homeless.

“We appreciate that perspective,” said Ryczek.

Those at the Coalition and other advocates present at the luncheon hope that changes will be made to end homelessness. They encourage people to contact their legislators and join them for their State House Soup Kitchens, which take place every Wednesday in the rotunda.

“We can do it,” said Tassoni about ending homelessness. “We’re small, enough, why not?”

Other award recipients recognized at the luncheon included Diana Burdett, who won the Carol McGovern Award; Jim Silva who won the Judy Soares and John Coen Award; Eden Sears who won the Homeless Legal Clinic Award; and the Beacon’s own John Howell, who won the Media Award for Outstanding Coverage.


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