Pawtucket’s only warming center closes days before severe winter freezeThe Black Lives Matter RI Warming Center on 92 East Avenue in Pawtucket has been closed. About 30-40 people get meals at the warming center every day, and 16 people spend the night, avoiding the freezing winter temperatures.
Published on February 1, 2023
By Steve Ahlquist
Update: Grace Voll, Communications person for the Office of Mayor Grebien, sent Uprise RI an email early Thursday morning. See below.
The Black Lives Matter RI Warming Center on 92 East Avenue in Pawtucket has been closed, days before a cold front will be moving into Rhode Island plunging temperatures below zero. Currently there are no shelters or warming centers operating in Pawtucket, but according to Grace Voll, who works in the office of Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien, the city is scrambling get the shelter at 1139 Main Street going, with or without state assistance.
Volunteers with Black Lives Matter Rhode Island took over the East Avenue site six months ago and have been operating the shelter publicly for about six weeks, but on Friday the warming center received a notice from the Narragansett Bay Commission notifying them that due to unpaid sewer bills, the water will be shut off on or after February 5. The building had already lost its electricity. The large utility bills date to previous tenants, said Brother Gary Dantzler, executive director of Black Lives Matter Rhode Island.
The City of Pawtucket condemned the building on Friday, and Pawtucket Police cleared the building out on Saturday. Brother Gary told Uprise RI that the Pawtucket Fire Department had toured the facility weeks ago and declared it “immaculate.” State Representative Cherie Cruz confirmed the Fire Department visit, saying that she was told that the building “looked great” and there were no issues. Brother Gary has made payments on the utilities, and after meeting with Pawtucket City officials on Wednesday afternoon, he hopes to have the warming center open before temperatures get dangerous.
“You saw what happened in Woonsocket,” said Representative Cruz, referring to the man who died in a city park there, unsheltered and exposed to the cold. “We’re trying to not let that happen here. We haven’t gotten support from anyone. Where are our city officials?”
The situations and rumors around the closing of the center are confusing. Uprise RI spoke with the Mayor’s Director of Communications, Grace Voll, by phone on Wednesday afternoon to get some clarity.
Grace Voll: Basically, it was just not safe to have folks in there as there are no working fire detectors and such. However, we are fully aware that it is not okay to have folks out on the street, especially this coming weekend, with the freezing temperatures, so we’re trying to work on having those folks relocated somewhere that is warm and safe for them to be at the same time.
Uprise RI: But there’s no talk about reopening the Black Lives Matter Warming Center?
Grace Voll: I am not sure I can comment on that right now. I don’t know if that will be the case. I do know that we are working with Gary Dantzler to discuss all of those things, whether it be reopening that location or working on finding a new location. I’m not sure though, at the moment.
Uprise RI: Is the lack of working fire detectors because of the lack of electricity in the building?
Grace Voll: Yes.
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Uprise RI: So if the electricity came back on, they would be operating again, theoretically, and would be all set?
Grace Voll: I don’t believe so. I’m pretty sure that since the electricity was off, they, for lack of a better term, short circuited, so the fire detectors don’t work anymore. It would have to be a new system.
[Editor’s Note: Uprise RI researched and could find no evidence that an electrical outage of any length could cause a working fire detector to ‘short circuit’ or otherwise stop functioning entirely once power was restored]
Uprise RI: Oh, wow. Anything else I should know about this? It’s going to get very cold…
Grace Voll: Yes, so we’re fully aware of that, especially this weekend. We’re very concerned and we know that those folks need somewhere to be, as well as the folks occupying the space under the highway. They need somewhere to be. We’ve been working with the state to try and get the shelter at 1139 Main Street going. We’re not sure that it will be run by the state this weekend, but we will have that open as a warming center for folks to come in over the weekend. That should be open by Friday. So that’s going to be an option. We’re trying to do everything we can to help these folks out.
On Thursday morning at 7am Uprise RI received the following email from Grace Voll:
“…folks in our administration met with Brother Gary yesterday afternoon.
“Due to the owner of the building (not Brother Gary) not paying bills, the building the Black Lives Matter Warming Shelter was located in, had the electricity shut off. Water was anticipated to be shut off shortly after. These decisions were not made by the City of Pawtucket, but by the electricity and water suppliers. A ripple effect of the electricity being shut off was the fire alarm systems defaulting. Based on that, it was incredibly unsafe for residents to be in that building.
“However, equally as unsafe are the forecasted temperatures for this coming weekend. This is why the City is working with Brother Gary to relocate the folks in that shelter, as well as folks that are occupying space under the I-95 overpasses, to get them into the 1139 Main shelter. We have been working with the state to get that building up and running, but unfortunately due to a lack of available vendors to run that shelter, it will be run on a volunteer basis this weekend, assisted by Brother Gary and the folks of BLM.
“We commend Brother Gary’s efforts and have been in frequent discussions with him to relocate these folks to a safe area. Ultimately, the 92 East Avenue location was just not safe.
“As for that location re-opening, the matter is in zoning court and is not up to the discretion of the administration.
“We will be doing a formal press release later this afternoon announcing the opening of the shelter 24/7 this weekend starting tomorrow at noon.”
About 30-40 people were getting meals at the warming center every day, and 16 people spent the night, avoiding the freezing winter temperatures.
“I think we need to stop and listen to [unhoused] people,” said Dantzler. “These are the American people that people do o care about. We have the responsibility…
“We as the community can do a lot better – meaning the city, the state – everyone. All these officials – they could do a lot better. It’s terrible. The right thing to do is get the lights back on, get the heat up and running, and help these people that are vulnerable.”
On Instagram there are efforts to reopen the center:
Rhode Islanders are in trouble. This Friday, temperatures are going to be subzero. While we have given out thousands of coats, these are no match for a night spent on the street in such conditions.
Last month, a member of our team had the opportunity to visit the BLM Warming Center in Pawtucket. The facility was immaculate, well-stocked, and welcoming. All those staying overnight had their own mattress and were given a toiletry kit and a hot meal. Everyone there was extremely grateful and willing to pitch in to help fellow overnight residents.
In the weeks since the visit, the city has shut off the electricity and water to the building, leaving at least 16 regular clients on the street.
Both employees at the center and local reporter @steveahlquist of @uprise_ri confirm that this closure is due to unpaid electric and sewer bills, seemingly from the previous owner of the building.
While details are still coming out, one thing is for sure: Leaving people on the streets this Friday night will almost certainly result in loss of life.
This is unacceptable.
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
Right now, our team is requesting blankets and hand/foot warmers. If you have any lightly-used blankets or other warming supplies you can part with, we will get them directly to those in need before Friday night.