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RI HOMELESSNESS

Cranston Street Armory faces hurdles to opening 24/7 warming station for R.I.’s homeless population

The state hopes to hear from a vendor who could operate a warming station for up to 50 people in the armory’s ballroom by Wednesday, but to date no responses have been received

Fresh snow blankets Dexter Field as the Cranston Street Armory stands in the background in February 2021 in Providence, Rhode Island.David Goldman/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE — The Cranston Street Armory, which is expected to become an around-the-clock temporary warming station for Rhode Island’s homeless population this winter, is facing hurdles in order to open.

At a State Properties Committee meeting on Tuesday morning, Housing Secretary Josh Saal presented his plan, but admitted to not yet identifying an agency that serves the homeless or other vendor to operate the warming center. Plans to use the armory as a warming center were announced on Nov. 30, which was the same day the state sent letters of intent to a “wide network” of “consolidated homeless fund vendors” to help provide wraparound services for the site.

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Responses to the letter are due on Wednesday at 1 p.m. However, Saal said the state has not yet received any responses.

Nearly 30 housing and homelessness organizations, such as House of Hope and the Housing Network of R.I., were sent this letter of intent, but Governor Dan McKee’s spokesman Matthew Sheaff said it was a “wide network” of providers.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Gregory Schultz, a member of the commission who is also a special assistant to the attorney general, asked if Saal expected any responses by the end of the day Wednesday. Saal quipped, “When we sent out letters of interest, yes, we expect to receive letters of response.”

Saal said the armory’s ballroom would be repurposed into a temporary warming station, which the state expects would be in effect through mid-April. While the armory is a massive, four-and-a-half story Medieval Gothic armory owned by the state, the ballroom is only about 2,000 square feet with a capacity of about 50 people due to fire and safety codes, Saal said to commission members.

It’s unclear why the state could not reserve a larger section of the armory. Saal declined to take any questions from reporters after the commission’s meeting.

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In November, 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. According to the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness, as of mid-November 1,339 Rhode Islanders were experiencing homelessness, and 507 were living outdoors as of mid-November. Advocates say those numbers do not reflect everyone who is experiencing homelessness, but are only the people who are calling the coalition’s Coordinated Entry System, requesting services like temporary shelter.

Rhode Island Housing Secretary Josh Saal.MARK STOCKWELL FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Saal told the commission that the state intends to reserve “around $2 million” of Rhode Island’s American Rescue Plan Act State Fiscal Recovery funds for homelessness assistance (which is $250 million of the state’s $1.1 billion in ARPA funds) to fund operations related to the proposal. Interested vendors will have to provide a general requested budget to the state in which an administration fee cannot exceed 5 percent — meaning $100,000 or less.

According to the letter sent to vendors, which was obtained by the Globe, a provider would be responsible for “all costs associated with operating the warming center,” which includes purchasing and leasing of equipment and furniture, storage needs and supplies for personal use, a $1 monthly rent to the state, utilities, maintenance, technology such as charging stations and WiFi, food for three meals a day for up to 50 individuals, transportation to the warming center, staffing, security, case management, among other items.

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Portable toilets and showers will need to be provided, according to the state housing department.Existing toilets in the armory are not ADA accessible.

Providers would also be responsible for the costs of “other supportive services” such as medical care, harm reduction, emergency medical services, criminogenic supports, hospital coordination and assistance, family and child supports, among many other services.

Providers would also be responsible for their own liability insurance.

When pressed by commission members, Saal said his department has investigated “several possibilities” for other facilities to become a warming station, but did not indicate how many nor did he specify which facilities.

The armory “was the best possibility,” Saal told members of the commission, but he did not say why.

Schultz, who said he thought using a state-owned property for public good was the right thing to do, also asked Saal why a conversation about the armory becoming a place for unhoused individuals was not discussed earlier this year.

“We all knew winter was coming,” said Schultz in the commission’s meeting. “I don’t know if there’s more budget money or whether its because there’s new space available, but why are we dealing with this in early December instead of September or August?”

Saal said the state has been addressing issues related to homelessness “on an ongoing basis.”

“This is very much a human problem, not just a logistics problem,” said Saal, who said the state has funded additional shelter beds recently but the state has seen an increase in Rhode Islanders who are currently living places “not meant for habitation.”

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The warming station’s plan is the result of a cross-agency partnership with the governor’s office, the state department of housing, the department of administration, the department of business regulation, the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, and others.

The armory was closed to the public for nearly three decades, but is currently used for an array of purposes. Most recently, it became a site for World Cup watch parties, which are taking place inside the armory’s Drill Hall with a 40-foot screen through Sunday, Dec. 18.

When asked if there would be overlap between the watch parties and the warming center’s opening, David Patten, director of the Division of Capital Asset Management & Maintenance within the state’s Department of Administration, who was seated next to Saal, said there “could be.”

“Obviously the homelessness issue is a priority, so we’ll have to revaluate that,” Patten said.



Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.