RI Housing Secretary Saal letter fails to grasp the reality of homeless encampments

As reported by Bill Bartholowmew, Rhode Island Secretary of Housing Josh Saal sent a letter to the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness (Coalition) requesting “real time” information about the those experiencing homelessness in the state. “It’s so complex,” said Jennifer Barrera, Chief Strategy Officer at the RI Coalition to End Homelessness. “I think one of the reasons people may doubt the number is because they don’t understand the complexity of what we’re dealing with.”

Rhode Island News: RI Housing Secretary Saal letter fails to grasp the reality of homeless encampments

December 15, 2022, 8:43 pm

By Steve Ahlquist

As reported by Bill Bartholowmew, Rhode Island Secretary of Housing Josh Saal sent a letter to the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness (Coalition) requesting “real time” information about the those experiencing homelessness in the state. Secretary Saal wrote that the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) “should be a source of powerful information” and makes what amounts to be three asks:

  1. All records of street outreach engagement should be documented in HMIS promptly and shared with the Secretary of Housing’s office on a regular basis;
  2. The Secretary should be provided with the location of the 80 encampments known to the Coalition; and,
  3. The “waiting list” as of December 14, 2022 of all those who are waiting for a shelter bed should be handed over by the Coalition.

Secretary Saal indicated that he wants these asks to answered by 4pm on Monday, December 19.

Uprise RI spoke to Jennifer Barrera, Chief Strategy Officer at the Coalition about the letter, but first some background about the waiting list…

What Secretary Saal seems to be referring to here is the list generated by the Coordinated Entry System (CES). The CES system was funded by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and providers that receive HUD funding to perform services are required to utilize CES. The state’s Continuum of Care regulations require that CES is in place and and used. Outreach workers and providers believe that CES is the best way to distribute the very limited shelter bed resources in a fair and equitable way. More about CES is explained in the interview with Jennifer Barrera below.

Uprise RI: Can you tell me about Secretary Saal’s letter and the Coalition’s response?

Jennifer Barrera: In the fall of 2022, the Coalition worked with our statewide street outreach providers to conduct an analysis of all the encampments throughout the state. We wanted to understand where they were located, what cities and towns and regions, and how many people were in those encampments. We conducted that analysis, put it together, and distributed it in September to the Governor’s team and Secretary Saal. They received it in the Unsheltered Crisis Plan that we wrote for the state on how to address the current unsheltered crisis at that time.

Estimated number of unhoused encampments
From the Unsheltered Cris Plan

Jennifer Barrera: Recently we’ve been asked to provide the location data and we told them we don’t have it. That’s the way that we protect our client’s privacy and security – particularly the folks that are unsheltered. If we have a list somewhere in our database of the location of every encampment – street address-wise – it is a risk. Our clients are at risk of physical harm; they’re at risk for their encampment to be vacated by a request that they move; they’re at risk of their encampments being destroyed, damaged, or items being stolen.

The street outreach providers maintain their own individual records, or knowledge of locations and they don’t share it with anyone because it’s just like you or I: You wouldn’t want your street address being blasted out to everyone in the State of Rhode Island if you were at risk. So we’ve told the state that we don’t have the data.

We have explained at length why we don’t have location data for the encampments. We’ve explained how we validated the encampment data at the point in which we collected it. We have another count, not of encampments but of people, coming up in January with our annual HUD mandated Point in Time count. That’s scheduled to happen, we believe it’ll be January 25th, but that’s not a hundred percent confirmed.

We received Secretary Saal’s letter today kind of out of the blue. We’ve been having ongoing conversations around data and street outreach and encampments.

Something that’s important to know is that there’s a number of street outreach organizations in the state, and not all of them are funded by the state’s Consolidated Homeless Fund (CHF). So this request for people to enter data in a more timely fashion – we certainly can implement that in the coming days, but only with anyone who’s funded by the state.

Street outreach is really hard. The people who need to enter the data are outside helping hundreds and hundreds of people. The challenge is, how do you ask street workers to decide between getting someone warm clothes, food or items to help them stay warm or sheltered – and entering data, particularly with the complication of the number of unhoused rising throughout COVID? We have been supporting our street outreach workers because they are critical and they are the people who are on the front lines. Mandates like this are are not helpful.

My recommendation was, “Let’s work together to figure out what the barriers and challenges are and let’s put some resources online to help support the data to be more timely, but not in a way that’s mandated.

Also, as I said, we don’t have the street outreach locations, so we can’t actually provide that. Certainly we will evaluate the contents and requests of the letter and we will work to meet any of the requests that are in our purview to respond to.

The last part of the request was for the list of everyone on the shelter queue. We certainly can pull a list of every single person, every single household. (A household is defined by an individual, a head of household for a couple or two adults, and then a head of household for a family. The information we collect is, Who’s in your family? What are their ages? and What shelter preferences do you have?

We ask about shelter preferences because people do have a choice. If they say, “I don’t want to go to XYZ shelter,” and then a bed comes up at XYZ shelter, we are not going to refer them there. They said they don’t want to go. One of the things the Coordinated Entry System does is take into account client choice. This prevents the problem of refering someone to a bed when they don’t want to go there and then they don’t show up and that bed won’t be be utilized. A new referral may not be able to be made for that now empty bed in time. So we really want to make referrals that reflect where clients are willing to go.

The list Secretary Saal will get will be the complete list, A to Z, soup to nuts, of every person. But that’s not how the list works. The list is dynamic. If XYZ Shelter says, “Hey, I have two top bunks,” John Doe and Jane Doe may have said, “Yes, I’ll go to XYZ shelter,” but if Jane has a disability and can’t be on a top bunk, well Jane can’t be referred to XYZ shelter. We have a dynamic database that’s configured with all of the criteria that shelters have. Whether they have a top bunk, a lower bunk, they have accessibility, they don’t, they accept service dogs, whatever they accept. Then we ask people, through our crisis assessment, what their barriers, challenges, and desires for shelter are, and we match it. Our system matches people with open resources open beds.

Uprise RI: I talk to the Governor occasionally and he told me that he doesn’t believe the numbers he’s getting. He doesn’t believe there are 80 encampments. He doesn’t believe there are 385 people outside. When I ask why he doubts these numbers he provides no reasons. So given all that you said about the complexity of it, How do you explain that complexity to the Governor and get him to understand that these numbers are real and accurate?

Jennifer Barrera: That’s at the root of the issue. It’s so complex. I think one of the reasons people may doubt the number is because they don’t understand the complexity of what we’re dealing with. Secondly, our data changes. We get fluctuations in the numbers due to holidays or due to warm weather or due to cold weather. Due to it being the first of the month, when people might get financial resources in and use them for hotels. There’s so many variables that feed into the numbers.

What I can say is that we record every phone call that comes into our system and our HMIF database has very low data quality errors. We’ve proven that time and time again. People doubt the numbers because they are fearful about the crisis and about the number of people unsheltered. But our data has consistently been found to be reliable.

Uprise RI: That’s a [thorough] answer. Maybe a little too complicated for a person who doubts complexity, but still very good.

Jennifer Barrera: I mean, it’s complex. It’s hard to understand. I think people are scared. This is a crisis like we’ve never seen before.