PROVIDENCE — Just two days after dozens of homeless Rhode Islanders rallied outside the governor’s office, demanding more shelter beds be made available, Governor Dan McKee’s administration announced Wednesday that it would fund a fraction of their request.
McKee’s office said $1.4 million has been administered to fund 77 new emergency shelter beds, bringing the total number of new shelter beds funded this year to 351. With these additions, the state’s housing department expects the statewide shelter capacity to include more than 1,000 operational beds.
The governor said in a statement that expanding shelter capacity will “help ensure we have the resources to support families and individuals who are experiencing homelessness.”
However, advocates have been calling on the administration for months — including during Monday’s rally — 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.
“I appreciate that they are expanding the shelter capacity. However, because of the very slow pace of that expansion, we are woefully short of enough beds for those who are living outside and in their cars,” said Eric Hirsch, a Providence College urban sociologist and co-chair of the state’s Homeless Management Information System Steering Committee, to the Globe on Wednesday.
Hirsch said there were 482 people who spent at least one night in “a place not meant for human habitation” for the two weeks ending Nov. 19 — including 68 households with children.
On top of those in the cold, the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness reported earlier this month that more than 830 people are being served in emergency shelters across the state.
Matt Sheaff, a spokesman for the governor, wrote in a news release that the state’s department of housing is also working to finalize initiatives that would add 43 additional beds beyond the nearly 80 announced today.
When asked why the state could not fund the full 500 emergency beds ahead of Thanksgiving, Sheaff said addressing the issue is a priority of the administration’s, but “it’s also complex.””That’s why the Governor has a team of people working on this which includes his housing team, leaders from the non-profit community, and other members of his office and administration including [the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services].”
But Hirsch said the governor promised to shelter people “by Thanksgiving.”
“We need the governor to re-open the hotels. Many rooms are available in winter,” said Hirsch. McKee “has not kept his promise to provide a shelter bed to anyone who needs one by Thanksgiving.”
A spokesman for state housing Secretary Josh Saal released a statement last week that said some of the two dozen people living in tents in front of the State House have “declined opportunities to move to alternative shelter resources.” After receiving criticism from advocates that no one had been offered shelter, Saal’s office later revised the statement and said outreach teams have been engaged directly with the population and that “offering shelter resources, which entails contacting the Coordinated Entry System on someone’s behalf, is a priority in their efforts.”
Hirsch slammed Saal’s office for the revision.
“Saying that people are being connected to ‘shelter resources’ as the housing secretary’s office has stated only means they are directed to call a phone number and are then put on a waiting list for shelter with 656 people on it. [That’s] not keeping his promise,” said Hirsch. “What we need is for out outreach workers to be able to provide a shelter bed when they encounter someone living outside in the winter.”
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.
Saal said in a statement Wednesday that the long-term solution to homelessness is to build more permanent supportive housing units across the state, but increasing shelter bed capacity is an “immediate necessity for Rhode Island’s current situation.”
“Our goal is to work with our provider partners to swiftly get these newly funded beds online, while we continue our efforts of meeting individuals and households where they are and investing in programs and initiatives to prevent homelessness, and when not possible, make it rare, brief and non-recurring,” said Saal.