Advocates for the state’s homeless carried life-size powder blue cutouts representing the men, women and children without shelter in the Ocean State.
As Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee asked the crowd to spitball issues and suggestions for the state’s 10-year plan, the cutouts were stacked neatly against a wall, and the men and women holding them gathered around Health and Human Services Secretary Womazetta Jones.
Jones stood next to a poster board marked with the word “Housing.”
While the McKee administration gathered at the Community College of Rhode Island’s Warwick campus to seek input on a range of issues, a large portion of the crowd had a single crisis in mind.
The New England weather has just started to dip into the 30s in the morning and overnight. And for those without shelter, estimated to be at least 600 in Rhode Island, the situation has become a matter of life and death.
“I work with people who have been doing this for 20-30 years, saying this is the worst it’s ever been,” Christa Thomas-Sowers stood to tell McKee and members of his administration. “This is unprecedented. The numbers that they’re giving you are only the people who have gotten onto the list. This is a crisis. I just need to know that something’s going to be done about this, because we don’t have much left in us.”
McKee, Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, and members of their administration held a Rhode Island 2030 public input session Tuesday evening. The goal was to “discuss a vision for Rhode Island’s future.”
McKee announced late Wednesday that his administration would allocate $5 million in funding to provide emergency shelter capacity to Rhode Island’s homeless service providers, funding 275 additional emergency shelter beds.
“Our homeless shelter providers have been frontline heroes throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” McKee said in a press release distributed late Wednesday afternoon. “These much needed funds will allow them to provide critical services to Rhode Islanders who are experiencing homelessness. While this money provides important and needed assistance – there is much more work to do, including passing my Administration’s RI Rebounds proposal currently before the General Assembly and finalizing a long-term housing plan that meets our state’s housing needs.”
The McKee Administration plans to combine several funding sources to address the crisis, including planned reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Association, Community Development Block Grant CARES (CDBG-CV) funds, funds allocated by the State’s Housing Resources Commission, and Emergency Solutions Grant CARES (ESG-CV) funds, according to the press release.
The Office of Housing and Community Development hopes to work with providers to make the beds available within the coming weeks, as winter approaches. Seven agencies, including Community Care Alliance, Crossroads RI, Domestic Violence Resource Center, Emmanuel House, Harvest Community Church, Newport County Mental Health and WARM, will now have additional funds to operate winter shelters.
The administration previously held 13 virtual community conversations on key priority areas including education, workforce, and children and family issues. McKee and Matos rolled out RI 2030, “a working document containing preliminary recommendations which, once further shaped by public input, will serve as a framework and guide for the state over the next decade.”
Housing draws largest group
“Together, we’re going to eradicate homelessness,” Jones said. “I’m just telling you up front. I feel it in my spirit.”
Tuesday’s forum was one in a series of “in-person public input sessions to solicit feedback on the preliminary document.”
While handfuls of citizens gathered in groups to discuss other topics, like climate issues and small businesses, the housing discussion drew the largest crowd and the loudest concerns.
Thomas-Sowers has worked as an outreach coordinator for Community Care Alliance in Woonsocket for the past three years.
“It needs to be dealt with now,” she warned the crowd. “I’m having people coming into the center, if you want to talk about the suicide rate in the state, and the overdose rate in the state, these people are coming in regularly and looking at me in the eye and telling me that they don’t want to live, that they want to give up, that they are tired. We have to do this now. We’re burning out. All of the people who have been your frontline heroes, through this entire pandemic, we’re at the end of our rope here. And we need a lifeline. And we need to know that you’re hearing us. And we need to know that you care.”
Thomas-Sowers said she meets people every day who need a home.
“(I) tell them we can’t help you,” she said. “All I can do is give you a pair of socks today. I know you need housing. I can’t help.”
She and at least a dozen fellow Rhode Island homeless advocates demanded the state government step in and help immediately.
McKee stood by and listened.
“We’ve met with virtually every advocate group,” he said following the forum. “I do agree with them that there’s immediate need, as they’ve expressed. And we’re working our way through strategies that can express that, especially in terms of the short-term.”
Governor explores options
The governor’s administration has looked at several options to help alleviate the post-pandemic homeless spike.
“We would expect that there would be dollars available, but the problem is, where are people going to go,” McKee said. “We’re trying to work with the rent-relief program; is one option. So that we expand hotel stays.”
The state has moved some of Rhode Island’s homeless into local hotels, however the temporary move has not solved the problem.
“All I can say is that we agree … there’s an issue that needs to be addressed in the short term,” McKee said. “If the General Assembly is not able to … act on the supplemental that addresses some of this immediate issue, then we’re going to have to figure out other resources.”
McKee insists that his administration is searching for solutions.
“We’ve acknowledged publicly that this is a critical issue,” McKee said following the forum. “We’re not going to go too deep … I would just say, if people know somebody who is without housing right now, they should be contacting our office.
The advocates are one thing, but let’s talk to the people … who are homeless right now.”
Eric Hirsch, a professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Providence College, led the group of advocates into the main hall of the CCRI Warwick campus.
He and his fellow protestors issued a series of warnings and handed out flyers.
“The number of people living outside in Rhode Island has skyrocketed due to the Covid-19 pandemic,” according to Hirsch and his group of advocates. “Living outside in New England in the winter is life-threatening. According to the state’s Homeless Management Information System, over the last 30 days 575 individuals have been reported as living outside in Rhode Island. There are 1,075 individuals on waiting lists for individual and family shelter including 570 adults, and 505 individuals in 162 families with children.”
The protestors insist “our state government has not adequately addressed this crisis.”
They called the crisis “a failure of leadership on the part of both the Governor and General Assembly.”
The group also issued a series of demands:
“The Governor and the General Assembly must immediately mobilize a taskforce to create 500 new housing units. The Governor and General Assembly must ensure that those not housed as winter approaches have hotel rooms or safe shelter beds. The Governor and General Assembly must fully fund and find a site for the tiny home Echo Village to provide alternative safe shelter spaces for those currently living outside.”
“I think that 600 is a big number, but it’s not an unmanageable number,” McKee said in response to the advocates’ call to action. “And in fact, who are the people who are homeless? We can direct assistance in that direction. That’s one thing that would put a face to the number. That would be my best recommendation.”
McKee suggested people in desperate need of housing should contact his office’s constituent services line at 401-222-2080.
In the meantime, his administration planned an event for Wednesday calling for state investments in affordable housing.
“Rhode Islanders across the state are being priced out of the rental market and need more housing options that they can afford,” according to a press release from his office. “Currently, only two of our state’s 39 cities and towns are affordable to renter households earning up to $60,000 a year, according the HousingWorksRI’s 2021 Housing Fact Book. Rhode Island renters were already feeling the squeeze of a tight housing market prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Low rental vacancy rates and high housing costs mean renters are often priced out of the market or paying more than they can comfortably afford for their rental housing costs.”
According to his office, McKee filed a supplemental budget amendment with the General Assembly on Oct. 17 regarding “his Rhode Island Rebounds plan to invest approximately 10 percent of the State’s $1.13 billion American Rescue Plan State Fiscal Recovery Funds in Rhode Island’s families, workers, small businesses and housing.”
“That’s not enough,” homeless advocates shouted after Rhode Island Secretary of Commerce Stefan Pryor announced the proposal near the end of Tuesday night’s forum. Pryor led most of the evening’s presentation.
McKee’s Rhode Island Rebounds plan hopes to increase “housing production and access to affordable housing.”
“If passed by the General Assembly, the proposal, among other initiatives, would invest $15 million to incentivize the development and renovation of affordable housing and an additional $12 million for a property acquisition grant program,” according to a press release from McKee’s office.
Members of the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project are also urging constituents to contact the governor’s office.
They handed out bright red flyers begging the government, in all caps, to “PLEASE HELP RI.”
“Declare a state of emergency and immediately mobilize a taskforce to ensure that those not housed as winter approaches have hotel rooms or safe shelter,” the group demanded.
McKee’s administration will host the next RI 2030 public forum at 5 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 4, at Innovate Newport, 513 Broadway, in Newport.
ON THE WEB:
Read the RI 2030 Working Draft and Preliminary Recommendations at ri2030.com.