PROVIDENCE — Housing and mental health advocates are pushing Governor Dan J. McKee to create a state Olmstead plan, which could help fund housing solutions for homeless Rhode Islanders who are living with disabilities or struggling with addiction, their mental health, and other issues.
Rhode Island is one of seven states — and the only one in New England — that does not have any plan in place to protect this vulnerable population. An Olmstead plan coordinates and funds supervised, affordable, and supportive housing options for people who live independently with SSI/SSDI benefits and housing vouchers, educational and employment supports, transportation, home modification, criminal justice reform, community and home-based services, an various treatment options, among other supports.
Laurie-Marie Pisciotta, the executive director of the Mental Health Association of Rhode Island, has been advocating for an Olmstead plan. She said state leaders have long argued that Rhode Island did not have the funding for one — or the desire to implement it.
“Not a lot of people have ever heard about the Olmstead plan,” said Pisciotta. “And once you establish a plan — through the budget, by passing legislation, or by executive order — you have to actually carry it out.”
Olmstead plans are renewable every five years. Not having an Olmstead plan, or some type of alternative, leaves the state vulnerable to enforcement by the US Justice Department for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA.
Roughly 63 percent of Rhode Island’s homeless population are people with disabilities, according to 2020 data from the R.I. Homeless Management Information System.
Kerri White, a spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS), confirmed to the Globe in an email this week that the department, along with McKee’s office, has begun to convene an interagency planning team to discuss the creation of a State of Rhode Island Olmstead Plan. She said the team, which includes the Department of Housing, has met “several times” and is working to “assess the best next steps.”
White said EOHHS is trying to determine whether an Olmstead plan could be created via executive order, or if the state must wait for the General Assembly to pass legislation. If they must go through the General Assembly, “we will have draft language ready for review,” said White.
Homelessness and housing insecurity already lead to physical and emotional stress, data shows, and advocates say an Olmstead plan would not just focus on services, but on housing, transportation, education, and employment needs. They say it would save taxpayers money in the long run.
“Addressing housing needs and other social determinants of health through an Olmstead Plan can help the state to address many of the (other) needs of the homeless population,” said Randal Edgar, a spokesman with the Rhode Island Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities, and Hospitals.
An Olmstead plan could also provide transitional housing for homeless people who seek treatment for substance abuse and addiction. Currently, some homeless people who go through detox or rehabilitation programs are discharged back onto the streets, making it nearly impossible to stay sober or find work. It’s a situation that many housing and addiction services advocates say leads to relapses and chronic homelessness.
“Under an Olmstead plan, a continuum of care would be available so that a discharge for a behavioral health condition would be to an appropriate level of care and not to the street,” said Edgar.
Pisciotta said implementing an Olmstead plan “is about 22 years overdue.”
The history of state-specific Olmstead plans goes back to the 1990s when two women, Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson, who had mental illnesses and developmental disabilities, were voluntarily admitted to the psychiatric unit at state-run Georgia Regional Hospital. After their medical treatment, mental health providers said each woman was ready to transition into a community-based program. But the women were confined to the institution for several years due to the lack of community services. They filed a suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and were eventually released from the hospital.
In June 1999, the US Supreme ruled that segregating people with disabilities constitutes discrimination and that people with disabilities have a qualified right to receive state-funded support services rather than be institutionalized. Since 2009, the US Justice Department made Olmstead plans a priority of its Civil Rights division and began enforcing them in various states.
The Justice Department already has two settlement agreements with Rhode Island from 2013 and 2014 related to the lack of an Olmstead plan. One relates to segregated employment services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and the other is related to the lack of community services that enable kids with intellectual and developmental disabilities to live at home with their families rather than in residential treatment centers.
It’s unclear if Rhode Island will be in compliance of those decade-long agreements, which required the state to expand community services, both of which end in the middle of 2023 and 2024 and could result court-mandated multi-million dollar fines.