PROVIDENCE — Standing in the State House rotunda on Wednesday, Rhode Island Episcopal Diocese archdeacon Grace Swinski noted that until recently, people were sleeping in tents outside the marble capitol building because they lacked shelter.
“There is constant discussion about more shelters opening,” she said, “but when will all our brothers and sisters have a safe place to leave their belongings and sleep?”
Swinski also noted that one in four Rhode Island households with children are “food insecure,” meaning they struggle to afford adequate food.
And she noted that 61,000 adults in Rhode Island didn’t receive needed mental health care last year – nearly one-third because of costs.
So, Swinski said, “Here is the $610 million budget surplus question: How can all these people be best served? What are the 2023 legislative initiatives that will be best for all?”
Swinski delivered the keynote address during the 15th interfaith vigil organized by the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty.
Faith leaders from across Rhode Island marched from the Gloria Dei Church to the State House. The vigil began with a blast from the shofar, a ram’s horn used for Jewish religious purposes. And it concluded with Rhode Island clergy members reading aloud the names of state officials and legislators, saying, “May they govern with wisdom, care, and compassion.”
Swinski said last year’s legislative session produced “some wonderful legislation,” including the “Cover All Kids” act that provides health care access to all children regardless of immigration status.
She also cited a measure that used $250 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding to address housing issues in Rhode Island, including homelessness. “In 2023, we will continue to work for legislation that promotes safe and affordable housing for all,” she said.
The coalition listed seven legislative priorities for 2023:
- Housing: Advocating for more low-income housing and protecting Rhode Islands from evictions and utility cutoffs, plus emergency housing and services for people experiencing homelessness.
- Federal Aid: Working to ensure that American Rescue Plan Act dollars and other federal funds are used to address poverty and inequality.
- Immigrant Rights: Providing immigrant communities in Rhode Island with adequate access to services and benefits.
- Rhode Island Works: Continue to update and increase the benefit rate in the program, which provides financial and employment assistance to families with little to no income who have children high school age or younger.
- Revenue: Advocating for a “more just tax structure” to build revenue for needed programs and services.
- Environmental justice: Working with local advocates to prioritize environmental justice legislative initiatives.
- Food sustainability: Protecting and expanding food access and services for Rhode Islanders in need.
Swinski urged people to help advance those priorities by coming to the State House to testify, writing letters, and calling state legislators.
“Today we pray,” she said. “Tomorrow we advocate.”
Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, a Democratic former president of the Providence City Council, spoke during the vigil, beginning with a moment of silence for the Rev. Raymond Tetreault, who died on Tuesday. She said she remembered meeting Father Tetreault in Olneyville.
“He was always there, having a strong presence, advocating for the poor, and doing so much for the immigrants here in the state of Rhode Island,” she said.
Matos said Wednesday’s vigil provided a chance to “double down” on the commitment to supporting the “most vulnerable” Rhode Islanders. “I’m glad to be here to say ‘Yes,’” she said. “I’m here with you and in the fight.”
She said she plans to continue focus on affordable housing and making it access to people with disability, senior citizens, and multigenerational families.
The legislation “will help people have a second chance at housing no matter their past,” she said. “Housing first. Housing is a priority.” While the Assembly did not pass the bill last year, she said, “I am confident we are going to get it through this year.”
After the vigil, Matos said she expects some of the $610 million budget surplus to be spent on housing. When asked about recent criticism from legislative leaders about housing secretary Joshua Saal, who recently failed to submit a critical report with data on the state’s housing crisis, she said: “One thing that I want everybody to know is that we have been under-funding housing for a long time.”
“The problem has been building for quite some time. It is not going to be solved overnight,” she said. “I think (Saal) is building the department, he is in the process of hiring a staff, and I’m expecting that things are going to start moving soon.”
House Majority Leader Christopher R. Blazejewski, a Providence Democrat, spoke during the vigil, saying that housing is an important issue for House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and the entire House Democratic caucus. He said the legislature has made “historic investments” in the last two years in affordable housing, including transitional housing. And he talked about the importance of launching a “pay for success” program aimed providing services to help people struggling with homelessness and other problems.
Senate Majority Leader Ryan W. Pearson, a Cumberland Democrat, said the start of the legislative session is a good time to look back at what has been done and what needs to be accomplished next.
“We are on a path to a $15 minimum wage. We have expanded assistance for child care and for working families,” Pearson said. “We continue to push for more and more students to be eligible for pre-K seat, eligible for a child care seat. We have also legalized recreational cannabis, making sure we have one of the strongest social equity models in the country.”
But more work remains to be done in the new legislative session, he said.
“Many of these things, we have had the opportunity to pass and work on, and now it turns into execution,” Pearson said. “And we look forward to partnering with the governor and all of the administration to make sure they see these programs through but also figure out where we need to go from here.”