PAWTUCKET, R.I. — Governor Daniel J. McKee on Thursday announced the addition of 130 additional emergency shelter beds for people facing homelessness, including 80 beds at the former Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket.
During a news conference, McKee and Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos also announced that 20 beds will open immediately in Providence’s Hallworth House for “housing insecure” people who test positive for COVID-19.
The announcement came as advocates have been accusing the McKee administration of sitting on millions in federal relief funds while a homeless crisis worsens and winter weather rolls in. State Senator Cynthia Mendes, a progressive lieutenant governor candidate, and Matt Brown, a progressive gubernatorial candidate, have been sleeping in tents outside the State House to press for action on homelessness.
“We are listening to anybody who wants to talk about the issue,” McKee said when asked about Mendes and Brown. “But I think it’s a little presumptive to think that any one group got us here today.”
He spoke during a news conference at the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homeless office building in Pawtucket, saying, “I am more than happy to work with the people who are willing to do the work, and that’s why we are here today, because the people in this room right now are willing to do the work.”
When asked about criticism directed at him by Mendes and Brown, McKee said, “I am not going to talk back about personal attacks in this time frame. We all know why those personal attacks are coming. I would just say, look: Everybody in this room has been committed to helping people their entire lives. That’s no different with me.”
Critics have for months called on McKee and the General Assembly to tap a huge influx of federal cash to create 500 new housing units. The state has $1.13 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds.
When asked about that federal money, McKee said: “I don’t think you can put a dollar number on it until you get a plan. I think the Rhode Island Foundation and I agree that we need a plan. We are not going to spend dollars just to spend dollars, unless it’s an emergency like we are facing today.”
The governor said he believes the new initiatives will meet the scale of the homelessness problem this winter.
“It is a helter-skelter approach, for sure, as we are patch-working things together,” he said. “And I think that is why we need to be working on a plan so that we are not repeating this scramble every year. That is something we are committed to do.”
Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor explained that Thursday’s announcements reflect an additional $4 million in funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Community Development Block Grants, and state conveyance tax revenue through the House Resources Commission.
This funding will support 130 additional emergency shelter beds in these locations:
- Pawtucket: Amos House will open a “non-congregate shelter program” at the former Memorial Hospital. Families will be able to move in starting next week and will have up to 80 beds thanks to a collaboration with the City of Pawtucket, Lockwood Development, and VS USA.
- East Providence: House of Hope will add up to 25 beds to provide services using local motel rooms.
- Providence: Open Doors has committed to expanding its current operations to add 15 beds, which are now up and running.
- Woonsocket: Community Care Alliance has agreed to add up to 10 hotel vouchers in the Woonsocket area starting this week.
In addition, the state will rent 20 rooms at Hallworth House, a nonprofit skilled nursing facility in Providence, under an arrangement with the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island, which owns the building.
The first wave of COVID-19 hit the patients and staff of Hallworth House very hard, and it was forced to close in August 2020, the diocese said in a statement. But now it will be used for “housing insecure” people who need to quarantine or isolate because of COVID-19, thanks to the Episcopal Diocese and the West Bay Community Action program, state officials said.
Bishop W. Nicholas Knisely and other Episcopal Diocese leaders “are delighted that the building will be used to care for the sick and the homeless,” the diocese said in a statement.
Previously, the McKee administration had approved $5 million to create 275 more shelter beds, plus $31 million from a state housing bond to fund 23 affordable housing projects in 13 cities and towns, creating or preserving more than 600 units of affordable housing.
In October, more than 570 Rhode Islanders slept in their cars or outside, and 156 were in households with children, which do not include situations of people fleeing domestic violence situations. On Thursday, Jennifer Barrera, a program manager at the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness, said: “Last night 1,200 of our neighbors slept in a shelter bed or slept outside. And while the weather today is quite mild, we all have experienced the very cold weather, and we know there is more cold weather to come.”
Homelessness is caused by a lack of affordable housing and low wages, Barrera said. “Quite simply, the supply of housing is not meeting the demand,” she said. “Every winter, we face the same challenge.” And this year, the pandemic and the associated recession has made the situation even worse, she said.
“The resources announced today will help us address the crisis,” Barrera said. “But we are by no means done. We cannot take our foot off the gas pedal.”
She called for systemic change, saying: “In Rhode Island, there is no right to shelter. If the shelters are full, Rhode Islanders are turned away. This can’t continue.” She called for the General Assembly to pass “right-to-shelter” legislation, saying, “Our neighbors in Massachusetts are a right-to-shelter state, which means anyone who presents for shelter is able to get shelter that same evening.”
When asked about the “right-to-shelter” idea, McKee said, “Any legislation that comes in that’s favorable to the conditions to help people in the State of Rhode Island, we will take a real strong look at that if it gets to my desk.”
Nick Horton, co-executive director of Open Doors, said the organization has been working on opening a shelter for about six months, and he has seen the state move a lot of obstacles to make that happen.
“The largest obstacles that I’ve seen to increasing shelter capacity has been the everyday Rhode Islanders’ resistance to having a shelter in the back yard,” he said. “The way that comes out through community meetings or zoning laws is a massive obstacle to have to overcome.”