Health Care

Governor McKee not doing enough about homeless crisis, say advocates

As winter approaches, Rhode Island is in the midst of a homelessness crisis, and Governor McKee has been slow to act say advocates. On Monday, they are holding a protest…

Rhode Island News: Governor McKee not doing enough about homeless crisis, say advocates

September 30, 2022, 10:15 am

By Deborah Marini

On the 21st of September, Governor Daniel McKee and Housing Secretary Josh Saal held a meeting at the Rhode Island State House with homelessness service providers, the Rhode Island Foundation, and a handful of housing advocates to discuss the state’s crisis of unsheltered homelessness. Terri Wright and Brandon Hong – community organizers with Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE) – stood outside the meeting with a sign that read, “Josh Saal: Do Your Job or Resign!”

“No justice, no peace, ‘til we get the homeless off the street,” Hong chanted outside the meeting’s closed door. “Open the meeting to the public, it’s a public crisis,” he added. 

At the time of the meeting, the waitlist for shelter was over 400 people long, there were people living in over 80 encampments across the state, and over 350 people were sleeping outside, according to outreach workers’ counts. In the week since, that number has increased to over 405 people sleeping outside, including 57 households with children. Due to a shortage of outreach workers across the state, this is an undercount.

Attendees demanded action from the governor’s office, but left without any agreement from the governor on how to shelter the hundreds of people living outside. Following the disappointing outcomes of the meeting, the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project (RIHAP), DARE, and Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE) have planned a rally and march for this upcoming Monday, calling on Governor McKee to “House Our People or Get Out of Our House.” 

“What’s really lacking is a sense of urgency,” said Eric Hirsch, a member of RIHAP and Co-Chair of the state’s Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) Steering Committee. “[The governor’s office is] always talking about plans: ‘We’re planning this, we’re looking at options.’ And then we just don’t get the beds open—it needs to happen right now.” 

The protestors have four demands:

  1. The governor must immediately declare a State of Emergency and find buildings and outdoor spaces for 500 shelter beds. (The estimated cost is $12.2 million for the first year.)
  2. There must be a well-planned and funded path for these constituents to be placed in permanent housing. Therefore, the governor must find creative ways to quickly create 500 new permanent supportive and deeply-subsidized housing units.
  3. The governor must provide $2.8 million in flexible funding to facilitate the housing of 420 individuals and families who would otherwise enter the emergency shelter system. (Housing problem-solving programs have a proven record of success in Rhode Island)
  4. Hundreds of millions of federal dollars are available to fund these initiatives. It’s time for the governor to spend these funds to address this urgent crisis. 

Advocates plan to meet at Burnside Park at 10 am on October 3rd, and have emphasized that all are welcome to join the rally and march to the State House.

“There are plenty of solutions to mitigate this housing crisis,” Wright said outside the meeting. “No one’s listening, and there’s no urgency. If it were children, DCYF would have scooped them up real quick. I don’t like the way the state picks and chooses who they want to aid and help, and it’s definitely not homeless folks, or unsheltered folks, and it’s definitely not ending this housing crisis, which is costing all taxpayers and it’s ruining lives and setting Rhode Island up for gentrification.” 

Earlier this month, the governor released $5 million dollars to address homelessness and expand shelter capacity, but advocates say these funds fall short of meeting the scale and urgency of the issue as winter quickly approaches, and that funds alone cannot create shelter beds – sites for these beds need to be secured too. Service providers have identified six specific buildings that could function as temporary winter shelters, but objections from mayors, city councils, and planning departments have hamstrung any progress.

“The governor is not doing what he needs to do,” said Hirsch. “We’re asking him to declare a State of Emergency so that we can override some of the local Not-In-My-Backyard objections, and he’s refused to do that. He’s been very slow to open new beds because we can’t find sites for them. He blamed the service providers for this, rather than his failure to act decisively.”

House of Hope, a community development corporation and casework provider, has been working for nearly two years to find a site for their rapidly deployable “Pallet Shelters,” but have been met with harsh opposition from various community members. These 400-square foot personal shelters serve as temporary, emergency shelters that can be quickly set up in any open space – an empty building, an empty lot, etc. – and disassembled just as fast. Unlike congregate shelter settings, they offer people a sense of privacy and the safety of a lockable door. 

“Part of the issue is the fact that we cannot find sites for the addition of new shelter beds, and we don’t even want shelter beds,” said Paula Hudson, the Executive Director of Better Lives RI. “Obviously, we have to have them in the very short term, but what we want is a way to create more stable and permanent housing in the interim, and the rapidly deployed Pallet Shelter Structures are the best in our opinion.” 

Hudson said that, once sites are secured, it will take about six weeks to have shelter beds operational. For permanent supportive housing, she estimated three to four years. “But we have to start somewhere,” she said. “Three to four years is going to pass regardless, and we don’t want to be in this situation in three to four years beating the same drum and crying the same cry.” 

In a way, this is a crisis of ‘the interim,’ in which the governor’s office only makes plans for the future of housing, and fails to account for the hundreds of people staying outside in the ‘meantime.’ Hirsch complimented the governor’s decision to dedicate $250 million to affordable housing, including some housing for people who have experienced homelessness, but emphasized that this plan will need at least two to three years to actually materialize. “In the meantime, we have hundreds of people living outside, potentially in the middle of a New England winter. How that is acceptable is beyond me,” he said. “It’s not acceptable to me. And it’s not acceptable to the people who are out there.”

“Where did the money [the $5 million] go? Because we have more homeless folks and unsheltered folks outside than we did before” said Wright. “The numbers only keep growing with no eviction protections and no tenant protections out there. It’s just growing, and it’s inhumane to force families to have to live outdoors, like wild animals. This is Providence, Rhode Island, and we need to treat our community like they’re human beings. This is unacceptable.”

Robert, a member of RIHAP, emphasized the lack of faith people have for a system where shelters are constantly full, and caseworkers are constantly overwhelmed, and resources are constantly unavailable. “The system is overwhelmed as well,” he said. “Even the people that want to do things are having a difficult time getting things done.”

“The general idea, the consensus, is that we can’t do anything and nobody’s going to change and this is the way it’s going to be—we’re not going to effect any change,” said Robert. “A lot of people I’ve encountered in this journey will not call places like CES, that’s a waste of their time.” 

Robert was on a waiting list for shelter for over a year, and just got shelter recently. He spent last winter in his car. “I was in my vehicle, I didn’t have heat, and I don’t actually know how I survived it,” he said. “The prospect of calling CES and getting into a shelter was almost a joke.” 

There are almost five times as many people living without proper shelter this September as there were in September 2019. Additionally, over 190 people experiencing homelessness currently have housing vouchers for private market rental units, but have not found a landlord willing to accept them. Since the beginning of this year, over 70 households have had their vouchers expire before finding an apartment. As evictions continue, and rental costs rise, and Covid-era protections like RentReliefRI disappear, this crisis will only get more severe. 

“I see a lot more people coming through our door and calling us for help,” said Hudson. “The numbers are going up and up, and we are putting people on a waitlist for case management, but when we give them case management, we have no resources to give.”

The protest planned for the 3rd is one of many DARE, RIHAP, and HOPE have organized against the Governor’s inaction since taking office a year and a half ago. [See: here, here, and here.)

“We had five or six protests at these [RI 2030 Input Session] events that [the governor] organized, really, I think, to kick off his campaign for the election this year,” said Hirsch. “And he finally agreed to provide hotel rooms and other shelter beds. Conveniently for him, it was funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, so it didn’t require any state money.” 

This April, following the protests at the RI 2030 events, DARE, RIHAP, HOPE, and other organizations rallied at the State House in response to the closure of 525 hotel and emergency shelter beds. At that time, at least 255 were living outside, and over 930 people were on the shelter waiting list. Protesters hung an eviction notice on McKee’s door that said “YOU are indebted to the State of Rhode Island,” and “You have the funds, get it done.”

“We’re in another crisis situation. And this time, the governor is not doing what he needs to do,” said Hirsch. “We’re still trying to push them to do the right thing, the obvious thing. We are trying to raise the political cost for his inaction.”