Governor implored to take action on homeless crisis before deaths occurLast week, Rhode Island Governor Daniel McKee forcibly evicted an encampment of unhoused people from the State House plaza after a Superior Court Judge ruled in his favor. As a result, the newly formed Emergency Housing Coalition held a protest last night, the eve of Solstice, the longest night of the year, on the south lawn of the Rhode Island State House.
Published on December 22, 2022
By Steve Ahlquist
Last week, Rhode Island Governor Daniel McKee forcibly evicted an encampment of unhoused people from the State House plaza after a Superior Court Judge ruled in his favor. As a result, the newly formed Emergency Housing Coalition held a protest on Wednesday, the eve of Solstice, the longest night of the year, on the south lawn of the Rhode Island State House as hundreds of Rhode Islanders drove past to do their holiday shopping at Providence Place Mall. Life size cardboard cut-outs of unhoused people in various states of homelessness were held by volunteers facing the road as speakers took turns at the microphone, beseeching the Governor to take real, not cosmetic, action.
The Emergency Housing Coalition is a collection of groups concerned about Rhode Island governor Daniel McKee’s lack of action on homelessness this winter. As temperatures drop and lives are put at risk, the Governor and his Secretary of Housing, Josh Saal, openly question the reality of the crisis – doing little to nothing to alleviate the suffering of hundreds of Rhode Islanders forced to sleep in “places unfit for human habitation.”
The protest, which had around 45 people participating, had four demands for Governor McKee and Housing Secretary Saal:
- Immediately reopen hotel rooms to provide 400 emergency beds, as this is the only viable short-term means of getting a roof over the heads of those who are currently living outside.
- Guarantee that [the McKee administration] will not evict residents of tent encampments.
- Immediately find sites and begin assembly of rapidly deployable emergency shelters. These can provide viable shelter while permanent supportive housing and deeply subsidized housing units are under construction.
- Accelerate the process of generating 500 new permanent supportive and deeply subsidized housing units for those who will be sheltered in temporary emergency beds.
The Emergency Housing Coalition is made up of “a whole bunch of different groups that have come together because we are so concerned about the lack of housing in Rhode Island,” said Pamela Poniatowski, one of the tri-chairs of the Rhode Island Poor People’s Campaign, acted as emcee at the event.
“There are still people out on the street,” said Chair Poniatowski. “Even with the opening of the Cranston Street Armory, hundreds of people are sleeping outside or in cars.”
“In the beginning, the housing crisis required a few open buildings to meet people’s needs with urgency, until more sustainable solutions were put into place,” said Terri Wright, an organizer with Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE). “But fast forward to 2022 when nobody cares. Nothing gets done. 200 years and still no housing. Not enough for everyone.”
Gail, who is formerly homeless, spoke about a State House encampment she was part of over 20 years ago when she camped out under a tree on the southern lawn with 20 other people for 4 months after the shelter she had been staying in was abruptly closed.
“There were no shelter beds. People were forced out with no place to go. There wasn’t even a phone number you could call,” said Gail. “Homelessness does kill. Many of the people who were camping under those trees [with me] are deceased. They died under the age of 50. Because we didn’t care enough to deal with the conditions that led them to be homeless.”
Pastor Carl Jefferson, one of the tri-chairs of the Rhode Island Poor People’s Campaign, spoke for nearly 20 minutes about homelessness, relating it to religious stories of Christmas, Hanukkah, and Solstice.
“We talk about a child who was born in a manger. Just two months ago there was a grandmother and her child who was pregnant and a one-year old who were living in their car for a few days right here in Rhode Island,” said Dr. Nithin Paul, who provides medical services for unhoused people. “We worked really, really hard to try to find them shelter, but all the shelters were full. It took friends of friends who could put together enough money to put them in a hotel room – eventually. So [the Christmas] story is not out of date. It’s very real. It’s happening right now…”
“It is inexcusable, the lack of help that we are giving people. These people have serious healthcare issues, major medical conditions. They’re sleeping on the street… tonight, right now,” said outreach worker Christa Tomas-Sowers. “I want everyone to wake up on this problem because since Covid hit, it’s been gas on a fire…”
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Rhode Island State Senator Cynthia Mendes has been in contact with a woman who was part of the State House encampment evicted by Governor McKee.
“She was put in a hotel room, she was told not to tell people where she was staying, and she only got [the room] for a week,” said Senator Mendes. “The Governor gave her a hotel room for a week. She will be out of that hotel room by Friday…”