PROVIDENCE — Dozens of unhoused people who are sleeping outside the Rhode Island State House were handed notices on Wednesday morning, informing them they would have to leave by Friday morning, which has caused an outcry among advocates.
The notices, which were delivered to those in the encampment by members of Governor Dan McKee’s staff, said each person in the tents would be provided with a bed in an emergency shelter and transportation from the State House.
But that offer might not be fulfilled immediately, according to Caitlin Frumerie, the executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness.
Frumerie said the state is allegedly looking to identify temporary shelter throughout the state for those at the encampment who are at the top of the shelter priority list at Coordinated Entry System, which is a call system that the coalition manages.
“But we can’t just skip everyone else already in line,” Frumerie told a Globe reporter, explaining that the state might be looking for shelter spaces outside of the Coordinated Entry System, which has a contract with the state. It’s unclear, she said, where those units may be since shelter beds have long been at capacity.
“I think this is a violation of the Homeless Bill of Rights,” said Frumerie, referencing the law that prohibits discrimination and allows a person experiencing homelessness the right to use and move freely in public spaces.
Housing advocacy groups contacted the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island about the planned State House evictions. Executive Director Steven Brown said Wednesday the ACLU is “currently reviewing the situation to determine if there are legal grounds for challenging the state’s actions.”
Rhode Island’s Homeless Bill of Rights states, “No person’s rights, privileges, or access to public services may be denied or abridged solely because he or she is homeless. Such a person shall be granted the same rights and privileges as any other resident of this state. A person experiencing homelessness.”
Laura Hart, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Administration, wrote in an email Wednesday that the state had not violated the Homeless Bill of Rights.
”While the Homeless Bill of Rights enshrines a number of protections for persons experiencing homelessness, it does not obviate the law of trespass,” Hart wrote. “It is not applicable in this context.”
Late last month, two dozen homeless Rhode Islanders and advocates rallied outside the governor’s office, calling for 500 additional shelter beds to be immediately funded. The state housing department, led by Secretary Josh Saal, claims the statewide shelter capacity is up to 1,000 available beds.
Emergency shelters are seeing an average length of stay become longer; from two weeks to several months to more than a year, according to providers.
According to the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness, more than 830 people were being served in emergency shelters as of mid-November, and more than 500 people were sleeping outside or in their cars.
Frumerie says that data is chronically “underreported.”
The notice provided to those sleeping in tents outside the State House on Wednesday said those who do not vacate the property by 9 a.m. on Friday may “result in the violator being subject to [a] fine and/or arrest.”
In an email to the Globe on Wednesday morning, McKee spokeswoman Andrea Palagi said street outreach teams from local homelessness providers contracted by the state’s Department of Housing “have routinely checked on the individuals outside the State House over the last several months to connect individuals to available services and shelter.”
However, advocates and those sleeping outside said prior to Thanksgiving that “no one” has offered them shelter space. Pamela Paniatowski, a tri-chair of the Rhode Island Poor People’s Campaign, said hundreds of Rhode Islanders, including children, are lacking shelter.
“Despite ongoing protests, this is the second year in a row that [the governor] has failed to act meaningfully to address the surging homelessness crisis,” Paniatowski to the Globe.
All personal possessions would also need to be removed from the State House grounds, the notice said, but could be stored for up to 30 days if they are “properly boxed and labeled,” according to the notice. A state facilities worker began handing out cardboard boxes Wednesday morning.
“The state’s goal has always been to work with our local providers to engage the individuals outside the State House in a way that meets their needs, and ultimately connect them with shelter and permanent housing with wraparound services,” said Palagi.
McKee signed the 2023 state budget with “$20 million to assist individuals and families experiencing homelessness or housing instability” in June. “Clearly, the funds to address the problems are available; the desire to do so is lacking,” said Paniatowski.
The news comes a day after the Globe reported on the hurdles Saal was facing in trying to open the Cranston Street Armory, which is expected to become a temporary around-the-clock warming station for homeless Rhode Islanders. The state announced the plans on Nov. 30, the same day Saal sent a letter of intent to select homeless providers and vendors, asking if they would manage the site. Despite the armory being a massive, state-owned property, Saal said he plans to repurpose only the ballroom area, which has a 50-person capacity.
Saal told the State Properties Committee on Tuesday 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. But interested vendors would be on the hook for “all costs associated with operating the warming center.”
The vendors had until 1 p.m. on Wednesday to respond, but none did. The deadline was extended on Wednesday morning until Thursday at 1 p.m.
Saal declined to take any questions from reporters on the matter on Tuesday.
“The problem with this seems to be that the housing secretary doesn’t feel the need to talk to providers who have been doing this for years,” said Paniatowski. “Instead of asking what they should be doing, he’s just making up a plan and saying, ‘Do it.’”
This story has been updated with responses from the ACLU, the state Department of Administration, and the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness.