PROVIDENCE — Advocates erected 32 tents on the State House lawn on Thursday, calling for Governor Daniel J. McKee and the General Assembly to help find hotel rooms and safe shelters for those without homes before winter hits. They also called for state officials to tap a huge influx of federal cash to create 500 new housing units.
At least 336 people are living outside in Rhode Island right now, marking an 86 percent increase since January, and 1,069 people are on waiting lists for shelters, said Providence College professor Eric Hirsch, chair of the state’s Homeless Management Information System Steering Committee.
“The reason why we have the tents here is to finally light a fire under state government,” Hirsch said as rain fell on the tents outside the State House. “They are just ignoring hundreds of people living outside. We don’t want this to be the new normal. We don’t want this to turn into Los Angeles, where having people on the street is considered part of everyday life. It’s not acceptable.”
The number of people living outdoors is reaching record levels, advocates said, and the situation could grow much worse now that the US Supreme Court’s conservative majority is allowing evictions to resume across the United States, blocking the Biden administration from enforcing a temporary ban put in place because of the pandemic.
“I’m here today because I’m terrified,” said Sara Melucci, director of Rhode Island’s PATH street outreach program. “In the past year and a half, my team and I have watched the number of folks staying outdoors grow exponentially, hitting numbers that our state has never seen before.”
Between the upcoming winter, the reduction in eviction protections, and the lack of shelter or affordable housing options, she said, “We are currently in a state of disaster.”
Rhode Island no longer has enough shelters or housing to meet the need, Melucci said.
“If you are someone looking into a shelter tonight, new to homelessness, there is no shelter for you,” she said. “Many of your neighbors who you see sleeping outside already have housing vouchers and are waiting for an apartment, but there are no units to be found.”
Diumila “Matilda” Almonte, 31, said she has been homeless on and off for the past 13 years, and she was recently staying with others in tents on a vacant lot in the West End of Providence.
She recounted nights spent living outside in rain and snow without a tent, and she said shelters are now full. So, she said, something must be done to help those without a home before the cold weather arrives.
“It’s time to act,” Almonte said. “Our state could do so much better.”
Activists from the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project and the Rhode Island Homeless Bill of Rights Defense Committee set up the tents, and Barbara Freitas, director of Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project, said the encampment shows that people do care about the crisis.
“Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of our state government,” she said. “We have sent letters, we have informed them of the data, and we have gotten silence. Enough is enough.”
Hirsch said he has been working on homelessness in Rhode Island since 1990, and this is the first time that the money is available to really do something about the problem. The state is set to receive more than $1 billion in federal funding under the American Rescue Plan Act, he said, but it’s frustrating that the state is not directing that money to the mounting problem.
“We are saying to the governor and the General Assembly we need to act to solve this crisis immediately,” Hirsch said. “We have been trying to get their attention for so long without success really. We met with the governor. We think he cares. But we need action now.”
He acknowledged the state created a rental assistance program to help people pay their rent or utilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. But he said that money has been paid out slowly both in Rhode Island and other parts of the country.
Also, he said he realizes the governor can’t simply cut a check to help the situation on his own. But he said the General Assembly could come back into session this fall.
“If their friends or families were living outside, I think they would come back into session and address the crisis,” Hirsch said. “Between the governor and the General Assembly, they could decide how to devote some of the American Rescue Plan money to deal with long-term homelessness.”
He called for Rhode Island to enact its own eviction moratorium. He called for the state to extend and expand a program, set to expire Nov. 30, that now houses 212 formerly homeless people in hotels. And he called for state officials to act now.
“If they wait until January, we might have people freezing to death,” Hirsch said.
In response to the encampment, the governor’s office released a statement on Thursday evening, saying McKee and Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos held a “productive meeting” with homeless service providers last week.
“This was an open invitation to providers and members of the homeless community, past and present, in order to have a much-needed discussion addressing frustrations and hearing first-hand from unsheltered individuals,” McKee’s office said. “The governor expressed that he is interested in using (American Rescue Plan) dollars to address the issue but stressed the importance of reaching a long-term solution collaboratively alongside agencies, partners, and providers.”