PROVIDENCE — At about 6:30 on Monday morning, three women met on the corner of Weybosset and Dorrance streets, where a Dunkin’ Donuts used to be.
They were with House of Hope, doing outreach for homeless people. Finding people to help was easy. Having something to give them would be the bigger challenge. In just a few minutes, they recognized a man who was making a beeline in the opposite direction.
Sara Melucci, Jessica Banks and Megan Smith tried to stop him, but he barely slowed his stride. I’ve tried to get help from you, he called back. And you haven’t been able to do anything. He kept going and disappeared around a corner.
“It’s always hard to hear, but it’s hard because it’s true,” Melucci, the manager of outreach programs for House of Hope, said later. “He’s not wrong that he’s asked for help many times, and he’s gotten it in bits and pieces, but fundamentally his situation hasn’t changed. It’s true for so many of the folks we work with.”
The homelessness crisis in Rhode Island is worse now than it has ever been, service providers say. Demand for services is up, but the supply hasn’t risen fast enough to meet the enormous challenge. At the same time, the state has $1.1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds available for use — but no apparent urgency to use it.
Service providers like Melucci are frustrated by the pace of progress. A year and a half into a pandemic that has been terrible on its own and also made everything else worse, they’re feeling the moral injury wrought by trying to help people with little more than bus passes and a sympathetic ear.
“I’ve had coworkers saying to me, even in the past couple of weeks, ‘What is my job at this point?” Melucci said. “’Because I’m just going out to tell people I don’t have what they need.’”
The data is stark: In the last 30 days, at least 602 Rhode Islanders are living outdoors, including 51 families with children, according to the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness. Pre-COVID, an average month would see anywhere from 75 to 170 people living outside. In an economic downturn, they might approach 200 to 300 people a month. The wait list for shelter is now 1,000 names long.
“This reality of consistently high, and exponentially climbing, numbers is completely unprecedented,” said Caitlin Frumerie, the Coalition’s executive director.
This comes at a time when the state has $1.1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funding sitting in the bank. Governor Dan McKee has laid out plans for an initial down payment of 10 percent, which would include housing relief. McKee wants the money out the door by the end of the year. That’s more urgency than the General Assembly has shown, but to service providers, it’s not nearly fast enough.
“I wish I could say that the governor has seen this emergency as the crisis it is,” Frumerie said. “That he’s put his political weight and funding to make sure that no child sleeps outside this winter and the homeless system has the resources it needs. But this just isn’t true.”
McKee spokesman Matt Sheaff said in an emailed statement: “Addressing homelessness is a priority for the McKee-Matos Administration. The Governor has met with almost all of the homelessness service providers in the State in addition to visiting with homeless individuals at the Amos House.”
Sheaff also acknowledged that more needed to be done, but listed all the things the state is already doing, including approving a multi-million dollar proposal to continue emergency hotel shelters until spring, other forms of winter shelter, rental assistance, rapid rehousing and more.
But even organizations that are generally more averse to provocation say they’re concerned, if not frustrated, by the current situation. It’s an issue not just for the state but also cities and towns to deal with, they say.
“It feels like there’s a lack of urgency,” said Karen Santilli, the president and CEO of shelter and housing provider Crossroads RI. “The level of concern is not there, at least to make decisions that need to be made to address it.”
A self-described optimist, Santilli added: “I’m looking forward to our elected officials to show some leadership to do what’s right.”
Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi said in a joint statement that “addressing Rhode Island’s housing crisis is a top priority for both the Senate and House.
“This year,” they said, “we made unprecedented progress, and we all recognize that much more work remains ahead.”
Legislative leaders cite COVID-19-related rent relief as part of the progress the state has made, although service providers say chronically homeless people are generally not eligible because they didn’t lose their housing during or due to COVID-19.
And even when someone has a housing voucher or funds to help them pay the rent, there often isn’t a unit to place them in.
Service providers say there’s much more than could be done: flexible rent relief, more money for hotel rooms, an open space where people living in cars can safely park, and something like ECHO Village, a tiny home project that has run into big opposition.
One example of the gap: Right now, there is no quarantine and isolation site for homeless people who test positive for COVID-19 after the previous program lapsed, according to Frumerie. A new site was supposed to open on Nov. 1, but that’s been delayed, she said. Even as it’s unclear when it will reopen, the number of positive cases keeps climbing, Frumerie said.
Shorter-term: winter is coming, when the system always adds new beds so people can come in from the cold. There was a deadline on Monday for providers to tell the state what sort of projects they want to do. They’re supposed to be up and running by Nov. 1. That’s a short window. Like usual, requests are coming in at the last minute, everything’s delayed, and they’re in the dark.
“I recognize there’s a lot of competition for money,” said Eileen Hayes, the president and CEO of Amos House, a social service agency whose clients include homeless people. “But we could virtually end homelessness if we really invested in developing housing.”
Meanwhile, the phones have been ringing off the hook, proverbially and literally. At the hotline for people experiencing homelessness, run through the Coalition to End Homelessness, call center workers often have to tell people that resources are stretched too thin to find a shelter bed right away.
“That is the most difficult part of this job,” manager Amy Espinal said in an interview earlier this year. “This can break you. If you don’t have the fortitude to say, ‘I’m sorry, no’ — where do you go from that? How can you give from yourself if your cup is empty?”
On Wednesday, a small portion of the state’s homelessness crisis burst into public consciousness.
The vacant lot on Wilson Street in Providence’s West End is not the only homeless encampment in the city or the state, but it got a lot of attention, including from city authorities, who gave them until Nov. 1 to vacate. On Tuesday a developer bulldozed about half the site, which was already strewn with trash but also gardens, tents and welcome mats.
“I don’t want to leave here,” encampment resident Carmen Vargas said Thursday. “This is my home.”
It’s not just on Wilson Street, of course. The people currently there represent less than one percent of the people living in places not fit for human habitation right now. It’s also downtown, as you’d see if you joined Melucci, Smith and Banks on a recent Monday morning.
After being rebuffed by the first man, the group continued on and saw another man sitting on an edifice along the Providence River, his back turned toward the South Water Street bike path. He was sleeping, his arms crossed in front of him on his legs, like an airplane passenger bracing for a crash landing.
When Melucci leaned in, he woke up, and smiled with recognition: Melucci has known him for more than two years. By and by, as Melucci gave him a new bus pass and Smith took his Dunks order (hot with cream and sugar and a coffee roll), 48-year-old Jason Fewster told his own story of homelessness. It wasn’t the linear story of substance use leading to job loss, to housing loss, to the street. The most recent time he lost his housing, lost it because of an arrest. He’d been clean at the time.
Now he goes anywhere he can, but feels like there’s nowhere he’s welcomed. The park across the river is more welcoming of beer garden patrons than people who keep their belongings in their overstuffed backpacks.
“They built that park, it obviously wasn’t for us,” Fewster said, clutching the coffee they’d brought back for him. “It wasn’t for everyone.”
So what would Fewster do with the $1.1 billion? He has a few ideas. You could probably give tens of thousands to every person experiencing homelessness in the state, he said, and they’d find a way to spend it wisely — or at least enjoy themselves for awhile, he joked.
More seriously: Build some apartment complexes, Fewster said. Some community centers where you can sit without being thrown out. Buy some tents: Not everybody needs to live indoors, he said, and he’d rather be sleeping outside than in jail. Self-worth doesn’t derive from a mortgage or a lease, he said.
“We just don’t have a roof over our heads,” he said. “I don’t see why we’re so different. I don’t know how they see us.”
John Tlumacki of the Globe staff contributed to this report.