PROVIDENCE — Senator Cynthia Mendes, a lieutenant governor candidate, and gubernatorial candidate Matt Brown ended a 16-day encampment outside the State House on Thursday, hours after Governor Daniel J. McKee announced a $4 million plan to provide 150 additional shelter beds.
The two progressive candidates hailed McKee’s announcement as “an important victory for this movement” and credited their “sleep out” for pressuring the Governor into addressing the homelessness crisis.
“Today, our sleep out comes to an end,” Mendes said during a news conference on the State House plaza. “But I want to be very clear about something: No one should have had to do this in the first place.”
McKee, Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, and House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi “always had the tools and resources to solve the crisis of houselessness in the state,” Mendes said. Advocates presented state officials with a plan to address homelessness months ago, and the state had access to $1.1 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act money, plus a $600 million projected state budget surplus, she said.
“And still they failed to act,” Mendes said. “Finally, once our protest became a political problem for them, Governor McKee decided to pay attention to hundreds of Rhode Islanders freezing outside in the streets.”
She said that in the 16 days since they first pitched tents outside the State House, the state allocated $4 million to expand shelters, and the City of Providence allocated nearly $500,000 to address homelessness. Also, she noted McKee’s announcement Thursday came three days after 100 people joined her, Brown, and others in sleeping outside the State House.
“It is an important victory for this movement that Governor McKee has finally been pressured into acting,” she said in a news release.
“It was nine months that the advocates were begging and pleading and pushing for action and got nothing,” Brown said during his press conference Thursday afternoon. It was “infuriating,” he said, because “if they could do that in 16 days now, they could have done it 10 months ago or six months ago.”
“The reason they are doing this now after 16 days is because the only thing they care about they felt was in jeopardy – which is their political power,” he said. “They felt that Rhode Islanders were coming out in droves, rejecting their policy that some people sleep outside, and they might lose elections in a few months.”
Mendes, an East Providence Democrat, said she plans to introduce legislation “for Rhode Island to join Massachusetts as a ‘right to shelter’ state,” and she will push for an immediate eviction moratorium. The shelter beds have not solved the systemic issues that lead to homelessness, she said, calling for more affordable housing, a “living wage,” and “universal health care.”
When asked about Mendes and Brown’s encampment during a press conference earlier in the day, protest at a morning press conference, McKee, a Cumberland Democrat, said, “We are listening to anybody who wants to talk about the issue. But I think it’s a little presumptive to think that any one group got us here today.”
Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, a Providence Democrat, said she has made affordable and accessible housing a top priority, and she said the McKee/Matos administration has been “working really hard every day to provide safe housing for those who are in need” in Rhode Island.
“This cannot be done with just a press conference,” Matos said. “It takes work – hard work.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.