Health Care

Mendes and Brown end Sleep Out protest, vow further action

“Governor McKee always had the tools and resources to solve the crisis of houselessness, but he chose to ignore it until it became a political problem for him,” said Senator Cynthia Mendes. “It shouldn’t take hundreds of Rhode Islanders sleeping in tents outside the State House to get the Governor to pay attention to this crisis.”
Photo for Mendes and Brown end Sleep Out protest, vow further action

Published on December 16, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist

For 16 nights State Senator Cynthia Mendes and gubernatorial candidate Matt Brown have slept on the Rhode Island State House grounds, calling on Governor Daniel McKee and General Assembly leadership to take action to ensure that no one will freeze to death in Rhode Island due to homelessness. Today, the protest, called Sleep Out RI, ended.

“After 10 months of inaction on Rhode Island’s crisis of homelessness and just 3 days after nearly 100 protesters slept in tents on the State House plaza, Governor McKee announced over 150 new shelter beds, the opening of a non-congregate shelter at Memorial Hospital, and the creation of a quarantine and isolation facility for unhoused Rhode Islanders,” say organizers of the protest in a press release. “In the two weeks since the start of the Sleep Out protest, the state has found $4 million to expand shelter, the City of Providence allocated $500,000 to expand shelter services, and the City of Woonsocket plans to vote on $70,000 for emergency hotel vouchers on Monday. As a result, our state will have over 400 new shelter spaces for unhoused Rhode Islanders with more to come.”

“It is an important victory for this movement that Governor McKee has finally been pressured into acting, but no one should have ever had to do this in the first place,” said Senator Mendes. “Governor McKee always had the tools and resources to solve the crisis of houselessness, but he chose to ignore it until it became a political problem for him. It shouldn’t take hundreds of Rhode Islanders sleeping in tents outside the State House to get the Governor to pay attention to this crisis.”

Senator Mendes plans to introduce legislation to make Rhode Island a “Right to Shelter” state and create an eviction moratorium through the duration of the pandemic.

“This movement has succeeded in forcing the state government and municipalities across Rhode Island to finally take action to provide emergency shelter beds this winter, but our state still has a lot of work to do to permanently end homelessness,” said Matt Brown. “We need a living wage, affordable housing, universal healthcare, and most importantly we need a government that is committed to the basic principle that shelter is a human right and no one should have to live outside.”

Earlier in the day Governor McKee was asked what impact the protest has had on his administration’s actions to provide emergency shelter beds for the unhoused.

Governor McKee said it was “presumptive” of the protesters to claim that “any one group got us here today” especially considering the hard work of the homelessness advocates attending his press conference, and suggested that political, rather than humanitarian motives, were propelling the Sleep Out protest. Note that Senator Mendes and Matt Brown never suggested they were solely responsible for the Governor’s action.

At her press conference Senator Mendes disputed the Governor’s narrative, saying that McKee has ignored the escalating problem of homelessness and eviction for months, despite advocates pleading with him to take action. There was “no response from this administration, no plan from this administration – and it wasn’t until the middle of December was that call heeded,” said Senator Mendes.

Matt Brown agreed. “It was nine months that the advocates were begging and pleading and pushing for action and got nothing,” said Brown. “It’s hard to believe it’s a coincidence. In the 16 days, since hundreds of people started coming out here, they found 400 beds. They finally started taking action.” Brown later said it was “insulting to dismiss” the people of this state who protested. “People came out here, they were courageous, they dedicated themselves to this.”

“This would never have happened without the public pressure of the Sleep Out protest,” said Barabara Freitas, Founder & Executive Director of the RI Homelessness Advocacy Project in a statement. “We’ve been asking for these beds for months and gotten nothing, but in the last two weeks we’ve seen a complete change of tune from the Governor. All of a sudden this crisis moved to the top of his list of priorities.”

As the encampment is broken down, extra supplies will be donated to House of Hope, Project Weber/Renew, Mathewson St. Church, and Wide Awakes Collective, a mutual aid organization.

“We’ll be watching,” said Senator Mendes. “If Governor McKee allows this to become a crisis again, Rhode Islanders have proven they will not stand for that and will hold him accountable.”

Here’s the full video of Matt Brown and Dr. Nithin Paul, one of the members of the protest who slept out all 16 nights.

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