Community

Exclusive: Outside ‘meeting to plan a meeting’ West End residents voice concern over warming center

Residents complained that the warming center has brought in a fair amount of additional crime, as well as more ambulances and sirens, echoing concerns that South Side residents have voiced for years. People ejected from the warming center for substance use or other issues find themselves in Dexter Park or in people’s yards said residents, and they do not feel safe.

Rhode Island News: Exclusive: Outside ‘meeting to plan a meeting’ West End residents voice concern over warming center

February 24, 2023, 1:17 pm

By Steve Ahlquist

Residents of Providence’s West End gathered outside Community Music Works on Westminster Street to bring their concerns about the Cranston Street Armory warming center to the people running the center, government officials, and elected city and state representatives.

Community members who asked to attend the meeting were not allowed inside, except for a few representatives from the West Broadway Neighborhood Association (WBNA). Uprise RI arrived a little early for the meeting, only to be told we had to leave.

“That’s okay, [we’ve] been thrown out of better places,” I joked.

“You’re not being thrown out,” said Major General Christopher Callahan, who heads up the Rhode Island National Guard. The National Guard has been instrumental in supplying staffing for the warming shelter, which is being run by Eileen Hayes, CEO of Amos House.

“Can I stay?”

“No,” said a woman, who explained that this meeting was to plan a community meeting between concerned West End residents and newly appointed Secretary of Housing Stefan Pryor. “It’s not open to the press or public.”

“Then I’m being thrown out,” I said, resisting the urge to explain what a metaphor is.

The meeting to plan a meeting was requested by the Housing Secretary.

See: Failure is not an option: An exclusive interview with housing secretary Stefan Pryor

In addition to Major General Callahan, the meeting was also attended by Eileen Hayes, State Senator Samuel Bell, State Representative Enrique Sanchez, Providence City Council President Rachel Miller, Secretary of Housing Stefan Pryor, along with Assistant Secretary Hannah Moore and Rebecca Atwood, President of the West Broadway Neighborhood Association. Also attending was a representative from the Rhode Island Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM), the state entity in charge of the Armory The meeting to plan a meeting lasted just under two hours and concerned not only planning community outreach, but future plans for the Armory.

Outside the meeting a crowd of about 30 neighborhood residents had gathered. It was cold and breezy.

“I’ve been trying to get a public community meeting on the books for several weeks now,” said Council President Miller to the people outside before entering the building. “This is the first step.”

“It would be helpful if Secretary Pryor could come down and hear from us because we need to talk to him,” said a man in the crowd. “It is unacceptable that he’s not engaging with the community.”

“Our goal,” said a woman, “is to have the warming center dissolved on April 15th and never see it again. We have plenty of other shelters in this neighborhood already. I don’t want people being homeless, but I don’t want any more shelters in this neighborhood.”

Newly-elected State Representative Enrique Sanchez took a lot of heat from residents about the warming center, even though he had not been sworn in when Governor Daniel McKee and the previous Housing Secretary Josh Saal made the decision to open the Armory as a warming center back in mid-December.

“When this became a warming center, no one in the neighborhood was told about it. We were never consulted,” said a woman to Representative Sanchez, who skipped the early part of the meeting inside to talk to residents outside.

“We all know that the Governor got tired of the encampment on his yard so he just shoved it over here just like that, with no forethought, no planning, no infrastructure in place,” said another woman.

Residents complained that the warming center has brought in a fair amount of additional crime, as well as more ambulances and sirens, echoing concerns that South Side residents have voiced for years. People ejected from the warming center for substance use or other issues find themselves in Dexter Park or in people’s yards said residents, and they do not feel safe.

While the meeting went on inside the building, Uprise RI asked people in the crowd some questions.

Uprise RI: So the immediate issue is that the warming center is due to close in April and you don’t want it staying open longer, correct?

Area woman: Yes. But also, the state needs to solve its homeless issue. The whole state. It’s not just, ‘get it off the front lawn of the State House.’

Uprise RI: The Governor knew, way back in March, that this issue was coming, but instead of taking action, the Governor was actively disputing with advocates the number of unhoused people in the state. [Initially planned to serve 50 people, the Cranston Street Armory warming center serves between three and four times that number every day.] When this warming center closes there will not be enough services in place for the people staying there now. Many people will be back in encampments and trapped in the cycle of pitching a tent and forming encampments only to have those encampments evicted and bulldozed.

Area woman: How has a solution not been found?

Uprise RI: The solution is permanent supportive housing, including very low and even no-income housing, plus emergency shelters to catch people when they fall.

Lest it seem that Uprise RI is painting the attitudes of West End residents as overtly hostile to unhoused people, recognize that this mounting sense of frustration was mostly directed at failing state leadership. Uprise RI spoke to people who were proud that West End residents took action in the form of delivering coats and supplies to the warming center when it opened and when the heating failed during a record breaking cold snap. But even though they are proud that their community was able to step up to help save lives, they are frustrated that the state has allowed the problem to get so out of hand.

After the meeting, Uprise RI was able to speak to some of the participants and get a feel for what was agreed to.

The Secretary of Housing Stefan Pryor will make “best efforts” towards closing the warming center in April, said Senator Bell, and this was confirmed by Representative Sanchez and Council President Miller. Also, a commitment was made by the Secretary to attend a community meeting within three weeks, exact date and details to be announced.

There were also “very positive” talks about the future use of the Cranston Street Armory, said Council President Miller. In addition, the City Council will look into directing City resources towards housing and homelessness. “Providence, just from a policy perspective, has some resources to add to the conversation around housing and homelessness,” said the Council President.

Council President Miller added that the end goal of the meeting was to arrange a community meeting between Secretary Pryor and members of the West End community and to that end the meeting was a success.

The Providence City Council issued the following statement on the meeting:

On Thursday night, we had a conversation with state Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor. We were joined by Eileen Hayes from Amos House, a current resident of the warming center, leadership from the National Guard as well as a representative from the Rhode Island Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM), the state entity in charge of the Armory. Secretary Pryor committed to joining us at a public community meeting about both the warming shelter and the future vision for the armory within three weeks. We will keep the community posted as soon as we have a date. We encourage neighborhood residents and guests at the Armory to attend to share their views. We also agreed that all parties will be making their best efforts to fully phase out the warming shelter at the Armory in April. Secretary Pryor confirmed that there would be no permanent shelter at the Armory, and he and others present reflected the state’s enthusiasm for the Scout development of the Armory, which has been in discussion with the state for several years (for more information about the Scout development plans, see the community meeting in December). CEO of Amos House, Eileen Hayes, also shared that Amos House will not run this facility as a permanent or semi-permanent shelter, as it is not the right solution for the homelessness crisis.

The Providence City Council is committed to working with our state partners, the Secretary of Housing and the Department of Administration to find the most humane solution to care for the guests at the Armory while the facility remains open.

Community Music Works. The meeting was held upstairs.

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