Health Care

Homeless in RI: If we leave 600 people out there, people will die…

“We need a solution today and we’ve been asking the Governor’s office for months. We need him to declare a state of emergency,” said Sara Melucci, Director of Rhode Island’s PATH street outreach program.
Photo for Homeless in RI: If we leave 600 people out there, people will die…

Published on November 3, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist

For the second time homeless advocates attended Rhode Island Governor Daniel McKee‘s RI2030 community meeting, this one held at the Community College of Rhode Island in Warwick on Tuesday evening. As they did in Warren last week, advocates demanded solutions to the crisis of more than 1000 people on a waiting list for shelter and over 600 people, including families with children, living on the streets, in cars, and places “not fit for human habitation.”

This RI2030 meeting was different from last week’s meeting in several ways. For one, the Governor attended the meeting from the beginning to the end. For another, instead of having lower level staff working the meetings, the Governor had the heads of various State Departments in attendance, including Womazetta Jones, Secretary of Rhode Island’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS).

Secretary Jones listened to, and was visibly moved by, the comments made by the homeless advocates in attendance.

Womazetta Jones

“We’re very concerned that people will freeze to death outside,” said Professor Eric Hirsch, Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Providence College. “We’ve been reaching out to the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, to staff members – and still, not enough has been done.

“We would like the Governor to declare a state of emergency.”

Hirsch contrasted state government’s inaction on homelessness to the government’s reaction to people flooded out of their homes due to a weather emergency.

“If people had been flooded out they would have been sheltered, they would have been housed – but since it’s ‘homeless people’ they say, ‘That’s just homeless people so we’re just going to ignore it’ or ‘We’re just going to let the nonprofits deal with it,'” said Professor Hirsch.

Sabrina, an outreach worker working in Providence, was pointed. “The Governor actually came out to the encampment that’s been on the news, with [the Lieutenant Governor] and a whole bunch of other elected officials, like half the City Council for Providence,” she said. The people in the encampment “were put into hotels [using private money] for the next two weeks. And some of them are kicked out already, and only had [one] week. As it stands right now, there’s a shelter waitlist.

“They’ve been knowing about this problem and [their reaction] has been way too slow,” continued Sabrina. “We’re getting overwhelmed at our jobs. The eviction orders just came, everyone lost unemployment. There’s not enough help out there for our agencies for the sheer problem that’s going on. It’s not fair to the people being affected by this crisis, the homeless people. You have families staying cars.”

“You have outreach workers going out and they can’t offer anything,” said Professor Hirsch. “There’s 1000 people on the waiting list for shelter. There’s no housing units available. And [these outreach workers] are sobbing on calls that I’m on because they have nothing to offer.

“Basic needs are most important because people will die. If we leave 600 people out there, people will die.”

“And they are dying,” added Christa Thomas-Sowers, an outreach worker with Community Care Alliance in Woonsocket. “I mean, the skyrocketing overdose rates, all these things, it’s all the same problem and if we don’t get these people inside there’s one thing that’s going to happen. It’s the people we see every day, that we know, and we have to look them in the face – and I don’t mean to be crass but no one up there [people working in Governor McKee’s administration] looks these people in the face – We have to look them in the face and say, ‘I have a number for you that probably won’t work. That is the best I can do for you today.’

“I spend all day telling people I can’t help them,” continued Thomas-Sowers. “We do the best we can with what we have to meet those basic needs. I specifically work in the Woonsocket area, and we’re often not even a part of the conversation. And [elected leaders] just don’t care. The City doesn’t care that people are on the streets. They don’t care that people are dying because they’re seen as the problem.

“We need a human solution here… It’s inhuman to not put these people indoors,” said Thomas-Sowers.

“We’re hoping for someone to intervene,” said Professor Hirsch. “Nobody has.

“Other states and cities are spending the American Rescue Plan money,” continued Professor Hirsch. “There’s $23 million in an American Rescue Plan Home Fund that the state is sitting on and doing nothing. I don’t get it. It’s federal money. It doesn’t need the General Assembly to approve… Why isn’t that money being used to put people into shelter and housing?”

Agreeing that Rhode Island needs to invest in housing in the mid and long term, Sara Melucci, Director of Rhode Island’s PATH street outreach program noted that, “We have 600 people sleeping outside right now, that Sabina and I would be with if we weren’t here, and we’d be telling them that we have nothing for them.

“We, as a system, hesitate to stress the need for shelter because we hate investing in shelter. We want to invest in permanent, affordable housing – truly affordable housing – but right now we need shelter too.

“We have people that have Covid and are sleeping outside because there’s nowhere for them to go,” continued Melucci. “We have moms with kids sleeping outside because there’s nowhere to go. We have so, so many people sleeping outside. Our shelter list is over 1000 names long. That’s not even the housing list. That’s just shelter.

“We need a solution today and we’ve been asking the Governor’s office for months,” said Melucci. “We need him to declare a state of emergency.”

“When I started this work in 2014, there were 40 families on a waitlist for shelter, and I was appalled by that,” said another outreach worker. “The thought of children [living] in cars is just heartbreaking. It’s so wrong. It’s something we should never have allowed. And now we have close to 200 families.”

Taking a turn at the microphone to report her takeaways from the conversation, Womazetta Jones called the advocates an “extraordinary group of individuals” adding, “I will leave here thinking about everything you shared. It touched my heart and my spirit and it’s extremely important. It’s life and death.”

Jones had earlier told the advocates that, “homelessness, housing, affordable housing and things of that nature are not under the purview of EOHHS. But all of the individuals you’re talking about are EOHHS clients.”

Before the larger audience, Jones called the lack of “transitional” housing a “public health emergency.”

Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor noted that in the Governor’s ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) spending plan he’s allocated $29 million for emergency housing. “That’s for the production and preservation of affordable housing… There’s $1.5 million to increase services very specifically for homeless Rhode Islanders in the Governor’s proposal.”

This “proposal,” however, does nothing for the hundreds of families and individuals sleeping outside right now, tonight, this week or next week. It’s like giving someone drowning the promise of a life preserver at some future date.

Taking a turn at the microphone, Christa Thomas-Sowers spoke directly to Governor McKee and Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos. “We’re burning out. All the people who have been your frontline heroes through this pandemic – We’re at the end of our rope here. We need a lifeline and we need to know that you’re hearing us and we need to know that you care about the people we look at every day and say, ‘We can’t help you. All I can do is give you a pair of socks today. I know you need housing. I can’t help.’

“I’ve been doing this for three years. I work with people who have been doing this for 20 and 30 years, and [they say] that this is the worst that it’s ever been,” continued Thomas-Sowers. “This is unprecedented. The numbers they’re giving you are only the people who have gotten onto the lists. This is a crisis. I just need to know that something is going to be done about this because we don’t have much left in us.”

In response, Governor McKee and Lieutenant Governor Matos said nothing. They just sat there.


But perhaps some of what was said got through to Governor McKee. He didn’t accede to any of the demands made by advocates. Instead, he announced $5 million in funding to provide emergency shelter capacity to Rhode Island’s homeless service providers. The money is intended to fund 275 emergency shelter beds as we approach the winter months. Unfortunately this doesn’t even cover half of the over 600 people (and growing) who are currently living unsheltered in Rhode Island.

“Our homeless shelter providers have been frontline heroes throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Governor McKee in a statement. “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.”

From the Governor’s press release:

“The McKee Administration is combining several funding sources to meet this immediate need 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. The Office of Housing and Community Development is working to support providers to make the beds available within the coming weeks.”

The following agencies will be operating Winter Shelter funded through these funds:

  • Community Care Alliance
  • Crossroads RI
  • Domestic Violence Resource Center
  • Emmanuel House
  • Harvest Community Church
  • Newport County Mental Health
  • WARM

To be clear, Governor McKee did not meet any of the advocates demands. He did not:

  1. …immediately mobilize a taskforce to create 500 new housing units.
  2. …ensure that those not housed as winter approaches have hotel rooms or safe shelter beds. [He promised that less than half of that need would be met – eventually.]
  3. …fully fund and find a site for the tiny home Echo Village to provide alternative safe shelter spaces for those currently living outside.

Meanwhile, a look at the weather shows that Thursday, Saturday and Sunday will reach freezing temperatures overnight. Over 600 people, including families with children, will be struggling to stay warm and survive while sleeping in cars, abandoned buildings, doorways, tents, or simply outside, in places “not fit for human habitation.”

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