PROVIDENCE — For months, advocates for homeless people have called on the state to add additional shelter beds before winter sets in, as Rhode Island’s unhoused population continues to rise. So when the state announced on Nov. 30 that it planned to open the Cranston Street Armory as a 24/7 warming station this winter, many social service providers applauded the move.
But this week, many of those same leaders are expressing their frustration with the state housing department’s lack of organization and the armory’s safety issues and inadequate capacity.
Housing Secretary Josh Saal said that his department sent a letter of intent to nearly 30 organizations on Nov. 30, soliciting proposals for operating the warming center. The winning organizations would be awarded a maximum of $2 million from the state’s $1.13 billion in American Rescue Act Funds. But recipients would be on the hook for “all costs associated with operating the warming center,” including staffing, insurance, purchasing and leasing equipment and furniture, utilities, technology such as charging stations and WiFi, food for three meals a day for up to 50 individuals, transportation to the warming center, security, installing portable toilets and showers, and other line items. And they cannot charge the state more than a 5 percent administrative fee.
“Where would I find the additional staff to support a 24/7 operation on such short notice?” asked Melina Lodge, the executive director of the Housing Network of Rhode Island, which has five full-time employees.
Winter is one of the busiest times of year for those who provide services to help people who are homeless. The organizations contacted by the housing department were given a week to respond with a proposal to open and manage the warming center. Proposals were due Wednesday at 1 p.m., but the deadline was pushed back by 24 hours after no one responded. On Thursday, the deadline was extended again, this time to Dec. 15 at 1 p.m.
“It is a large undertaking for any organization,” said Lodge.
As of Thursday morning, no proposals had been submitted, according to Saal’s spokesman Chris Raia. In a statement shared with the Globe Thursday afternoon, Saal said: “We’re looking forward to receiving responses to the LOI, and moving quickly to make this space available to Rhode Islanders in need.”
But on Wednesday night, leaders of some of the organizations that received the state’s request met at the governor’s office. Due to “procurement rules,” Saal and his team could not be there, according to state employees familiar with the meeting. Organization leaders expressed their concerns that the proposal’s expectations were “daunting” or completely out of the scope of their organization’s work.
“Warming centers are not something we’ve done in the past or have plans to do in the future,” said Jenna Pfueller, a spokeswoman for the Family Service of Rhode Island, a non-profit social organization, told the Globe on Wednesday.
The armory is a massive, state-owned property, but Saal said he plans to repurpose only the ballroom, which has a 50-person capacity. Other parts of the armory have been booked for World Cup watch parties, though a party scheduled for Friday had been canceled. It is unclear if the state plans on expanding their plans to other parts of the facility.
When pressed by members of the State Properties Commission over his plans on Tuesday, Saal said his department has investigated “several possibilities” for other facilities to turn into a warming station, but the armory “was the best possibility.”
It’s unclear what other facilities were evaluated. Saal declined to take questions after the Tuesday meeting, but on Thursday he said in a statement that the Armory “was selected as the result of a collaborative partnership involving the Governor’s Office, the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, the Division of Capital Asset Management & Maintenance, the Departments of Housing, Administration and Business Regulation, and others.”
Pamela Paniatowski, a tri-chair of the Rhode Island Poor People’s Campaign, said Saal should have spoken to providers who have “been doing this kind of work for years” prior to choosing the Cranston Street Armory.
“Instead of asking what they should be doing, he’s just making up a plan and saying ‘do it,’” said Paniatowski.
Lodge also said the scope of work sought by the state is outside of what her organization does. The Housing Network of Rhode Island focuses on advocacy work relative to policies and programs that increase the inventory of affordable housing. Even if the Housing Network was a qualified vendor, Lodge said she would not consider applying due to the limited capacity of the space, the temporary nature of the center, and the “extremely limited” allowance for administrative costs.
Many nonprofits — particularly those who service unhoused people in Rhode Island — have faced staffing shortages since the pandemic began. Others say are already taking on all that they can.
“We’re already at capacity right now with our existing programs,” said Vanessa Volz, the executive director of Sojourner House, a domestic and sexual violence nonprofit. However, she said Sojourner House would be willing to help provide some supportive services to the agency chosen to run the warming center in the armory.
Lisa Guillette, the executive director of Foster Forward, said she would also help any agency who agrees to run the warming center. But “running a shelter is not something we have experience doing, nor would we be in a position to take on,” Guillette said.
While several agencies contacted by the state for the project do not already provide the services needed to run a warming center, others who do were not contacted, and the letter of intent wasn’t posted online.
“The LOI related to this project was sent to all organizations that have existing contracts through the Consolidated Homeless Fund, which are the only vendors that can legally receive funding through the CHF,” Saal told the Globe in a statement Thursday. “The list of vendors eligible for this LOI varies in size and capacity, but is comprised of some of the state’s most experienced and most well-respected homelessness service providers. Going outside of the CHF and widening the scope of eligible vendors would have required a multi-month process, and that is time we are not willing to waste.”
He encouraged non-CHF vendors to collaborate with CHF vendors who received letters of intent.
The leaders of Haus of Codec, a nonprofit whose mission is dedicated to the unhoused LGBTQ+ community in Rhode Island, told the Globe that they were not invited to submit a proposal for the warming center. They do not currently receive funding through CHF.
Julio Berroa, the organization’s founder, and Gem Marley, an organizer, said they reached out to the offices of Governor Dan McKee, Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, and Saal. But Saal did not respond until after the original Wednesday deadline had passed. When they did talk to him, Marley said Saal sounded “excited that we had expressed interest” and said he was “hoping for collaboration from multiple organizations.” Saal told Marley he would send the paperwork for the proposal.
But by Wednesday evening, 18 hours before the extended deadline, the paperwork had not arrived.
Based on information from a Globe reporter, Haus of Codec began working on a proposal anyway. But late Wednesday night, Marley said, they learned the armory has “so many fire code violations and no running water.”
The State Fire Marshal found 39 code violations at the armory earlier this week; four of those would need to be corrected before the facility could be used as a shelter or warming station.
“We are terrified of the fire code stuff. That’s not something we are willing to mess with,” Marley and Berroa told the Globe via email early Thursday. “Abort mission.”