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Advocate: R.I. leaders are sitting on federal funds as homelessness crisis intensifies

“We’re worried that people are going to freeze to death,” Providence College professor Eric Hirsch says on the Rhode Island Report podcast

Providence College sociology professor Erich Hirsch, who has been advocating for homeless people since 1990, speaks to Boston Globe reporter Edward Fitzpatrick during the Rhode Island Report podcast.Carlos Muñoz

PROVIDENCE — Governor Daniel J. McKee and General Assembly leaders are sitting on millions in federal funds and displaying none of urgency required as the state’s homelessness crisis worsens and winter approaches, an advocate said on the Rhode Island Report podcast.

Professor Eric Hirsch, a Providence College urban sociologist who has been advocating for the state’s homeless population since 1990, said he has never seen so many people living outdoors as Rhode Island reels from the pandemic, housing costs skyrocket, and shelter waiting lists grow longer by the day.

“We’re alarmed that very little has been done to get people off the street and it’s been below freezing the last week,” Hirsch said. “We’re worried that people are going to freeze to death.”

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Last week, McKee announced that Rhode Island is earmarking $5 million for the creation of 275 additional beds for people dealing with homelessness.

But Hirsch, who chairs the state’s Homeless Management Information System Steering Committee, said, “That’s not going to be enough.” He said the state issued a request for shelter proposals two months later than usual this year, and nonprofits can’t find sites for new shelter beds. He called for the governor to declare a state of emergency and to get state department heads involved in finding solutions.

“Releasing money to overwhelmed nonprofits is not going to solve the situation, and that’s what they’ve been saying for months,” Hirsch said. “So, no, there’s no sense of urgency. You know, it’s one thing if you don’t care. But I’ve been saying there could be a political cost to this, too, if we lose people out there.”

He suspects the lack of urgency stems from the stigma attached to “the homeless.”

“But these are your neighbors, these are your friends, these are your relatives, especially during the COVID crisis,” Hirsch said. “If people had been flooded out by one of the hurricanes or by that nor’easter, they would have been in shelter the next day.”

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The lack of shelter beds and affordable housing has left outreach workers exasperated and disheartened because they have no way to help those in need, he said.

“I’ve heard and seen people on Zoom calls about these issues sobbing uncontrollably – not people who are out in the street, people who are trying to help them,” Hirsch said. “So you can imagine how people on the street feel.”

This situation is galling because, for once, Rhode Island has the money to address the problem, Hirsch said.

“We’re sitting on a billion dollars,” he said, referring Rhode Island’s allotment of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds. “We’re the only state in the Northeast, I think, who hasn’t spent any of that money. This is neglect. This is incompetence.”

McKee has proposed spending 10 percent of the $1.1 billion in a proposed supplemental budget, which includes $15 million for the development and renovation of affordable housing and $1.5 million for housing stability and mental health services for those experiencing homelessness.

Hirsch also noted that Providence removed a homeless encampment on the city’s West End days before a Nov. 1 deadline, although Mayor Jorge O. Elorza had said he wouldn’t move people out of that site “unless there’s a short-term, a mid-term and we’re working toward a long-term solution here.”

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“We all knew he wouldn’t be able to because we know this situation. We can’t even find shelter beds for people,” Hirsch said. “Someone should ask Mayor Elorza: Well, what happened to your solutions?”

Hear more by downloading the latest episode of Rhode Island Report, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, and other podcasting platforms.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him @FitzProv.