PROVIDENCE — Surrounded by people bundled in multiple layers outside the governor’s office, Ruth “Diamond” Madsen said she knows exactly what those sleeping outside in the cold are going through.
Madsen was homeless while addicted to drugs for about a decade before she was able to get help through the Mathewson Street Church in downtown Providence. She’s now on a fixed income and living in an apartment, making ends meet while trying to pay off medical bills. Since getting off the streets, she has become an advocate for the growing unhoused population in Rhode Island, and recently helped raise money to get tents, tarps, shoes, and other necessities for those sleeping outside this winter.
“If the [state] has all this money, why is it that little people like me who don’t have a job with the state are doing more? Step [out of] your office and see who these people are,” she said. “I can’t give no more. I have no more.”
On Monday, Madsen joined dozens of advocates and homeless individuals at a rally where they marched to Governor Dan McKee’s closed office door, pleading with him and state Housing Secretary Josh Saal to add at least 500 additional shelter beds this winter. In front of TV station cameras and other members of the press, Madsen turned to face the crowd and asked if anyone there “chose to be homeless.” Echoing through the hallway, they responded with “no” chants.
Nearly two dozen homeless individuals have been sleeping outside the State House’s plaza for weeks.
In late September, the McKee administration distributed $3.5 million to local organizations to create 231 shelter beds in addition to the 64 beds that were funded over the summer. After Monday’s rally, Chris Raia, a spokesperson for Saal, told the Globe “in the coming days” the state expects to release funding for additional beds that would bring the total number of new beds funded in 2022 to nearly 380.
“With these additional beds, we expect our statewide shelter capacity to include more than 1,000 available beds,” Raia said in an email.
But advocates say it won’t be enough.
Eric Hirsch, a Providence College urban sociologist and co-chair of the state’s Homeless Management Information System Steering Committee, has been calling on the state since at least early fall to immediately open 500 hotel rooms to provide additional beds for the homeless. It’s similar to what Rhode Island did as part of its emergency shelter plan last year.
“Staggeringly, the number of people living in ‘places not meant for human habitation’ went from 50 to 100 to 250, 350, and is now well over 500 people,” Hirsch wrote in a letter to the governor. As of the two weeks ending on Nov. 5, Hirsch said more than 500 people are sleeping outside, which includes 63 families with children.
The Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness delivered its first State of Homelessness address on Nov. 14, where the executive director Caitlin Frumerie told a crowd the state’s homeless data shows “a dumpster fire” and “completely horrific and outside the norm.”
Frumerie said approximately 834 people are being served in emergency shelters. While the data says more than 500 people are sleeping outside or in their cars, Frumerie said that number is chronically “underreported.”
At the rally, Hirsch said the governor promised to shelter people “by Thanksgiving” and that he was asking McKee to “make good on his word.” Andrea Palagi, a spokeswoman for the governor, deferred questions to Raia.
“Homelessness is a year-round issue, but is particularly critical in the winter months. We are working in collaboration with our provider partners and municipal leaders across the state to invest in infrastructure, services and supports that will help ensure unhoused individuals and families are able to access the resources they need to find safe, warm places to sleep at night,” Raia wrote in his email. “Our goal is to prevent homelessness, and — when it can’t be prevented — ensure it is rare, brief and nonrecurring.”
Last week Raia, who works for an outside firm, sent a statement to RINews Today where he alleged that the people living in tents in front of the State House have “declined opportunities to move to alternative shelter resources.” At Monday’s rally, many of the people living outside the State House told the Globe and in front of TV news cameras that they were never offered shelter space. In an interview with UpriseRI, Saal said the statement was “inartfully phrased” and “does not reflect the situation that’s very real and very case-by-case with anyone who is camping out.”
Raia told the Globe Monday that street outreach teams have visited the encampments at the State House about three times each week for the last six to eight weeks.
“According to outreach staff who have engaged directly with this population, offering shelter resources, which entails contacting the Coordinated Entry System on someone’s behalf, is a priority in their efforts,” Raia wrote in an email. “When individuals do engage with outreach teams, they are offered these resources; to say otherwise is not accurate.”