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‘We are always scrambling’: Weekend cold snap strains R.I. shelter system

“The state does not have a plan in place,” said Eileen Hayes, president and CEO of Amos House. “We need a new plan to end homelessness that includes temporary shelter, housing development, recovery beds, (and) family housing.”

The Cranston Street Armory opened as a warming station in mid-December.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — Frigid weather over the weekend strained Rhode Island’s system of warming shelters, forcing the sort of improvisation that some service providers say could have been avoided with more planning and more shelter capacity.

In Providence, extreme winds over the weekend broke windows at the Cranston Street Armory, which opened in December as a warming shelter operated by Amos House and the National Guard. The broken windows caused temperatures in the main drill hall to plunge. Governor Dan McKee sent state officials and the National Guard to address the situation, and together, they fixed windows, brought in temporary heaters, and moved people to other parts of the Armory and a new Crossroads shelter for couples on Hartford Avenue. Some got housing vouchers and some went to Harrington Hall. Sunday night, there were 152 people in the Armory.


“It was an awful couple of days but the weather is on our side now,” Eileen Hayes, president and CEO of Amos House, said in an email.

The Cranston Street Armory is expected to be open until April.

Inside the Cranston Street Armory in December, workers from the R.I. Emergency Management Agency unloaded tables, chairs, and equipment in advance of its opening as a warming shelter. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

But the issue goes beyond more than one cold snap, Hayes said.

“I have been doing this work for a very long time and every time we have a crisis like this, whether it is a snow storm, cold (temperatures), or a heat wave, the state does not have a plan in place,” Hayes said in an email. “That means we are always scrambling. We need a new plan to end homelessness that includes temporary shelter, housing development, recovery beds, (and) family housing.”

In Woonsocket, meanwhile, a series of logistical snags at would-be warming centers had providers on plan C by Saturday.

The first place that was going to be used as a warming shelter was Vida Church. But 24 hours before that was supposed to launch, providers had to find a new place because of concerns raised in a fire inspection, said Michelle Taylor, vice president of social health services at the Woonsocket-based Community Care Alliance. The Community Care Alliance and the Milagros Project quickly pivoted to a second option, St. James Episcopal Church, which was up and running until early Saturday, when they got word that one of the boilers broke. Temperatures fell to 58 degrees.


The third option — plan C — was a big room in the Community Care Alliance’s Serenity Center. That one worked. By the time it closed Sunday, dozens of people had used it. But it highlighted the lack of capacity in the system, Taylor said.

“If we had adequate shelter in the first place, this wouldn’t be necessary,” Taylor said.

The even longer longer-term issue is not just shelter but housing.

“Our goal, certainly, is to transition the shelters into permanent housing, but right now, we know that we’re three to five years out from having anywhere near the capacity we need in terms of affordable housing,” Taylor said.

State leaders say they’re working to address both those long-term and short-term challenges. Stefan Pryor officially became the state’s new housing secretary Monday, but over the weekend, he was traveling around the state to see how things were holding up.

“The shelter and warming center providers did an exemplary job of adapting to the ever-changing conditions that were caused by the severe cold and wind,” Pryor said in an interview Monday.


Pryor said that there was new capacity in the system this year even compared to last, but preparation would begin right now for the winter. Not this winter, but next winter.

“It is entirely predictable that winter will happen again next year,” he said. “We need to get started now with the plans for next winter. And that’s what we are doing.”

Asked whether the state was prepared for the cold, Pryor said: “My team and I are going to conduct intensive and continuing assessment of the system as it stands, but let me simply say this: Our goal is to build upon what exists, and ensure that we have a stronger yet better system in place by next winter, and that we over multiple years develop the variety of housing stock necessary to serve our most vulnerable residents and to serve Rhode Islanders at every income level.”

Nonprofit providers and the state government, meanwhile, are not alone in trying to address the issue. Cities and towns also have a role in opening warming centers. The way things are done now isn’t as effective as it could be, some providers say.

The issue: Cities and towns provide warming centers at places like libraries, community centers, and police stations. They can receive federal funds for those efforts, one provider said. But libraries and community centers may have limited hours, especially in the coldest hours overnight. And people experiencing homelessness may be reluctant to warm up in the lobby of a police station, which isn’t the best logistical setup anyway.


Federal support for these warming centers could be better spent — being more accessible, for example, or having resources like food and water and other wraparound services, said Margaux Morisseau, the deputy director of the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness. Her organization is working with state Senator Tiara Mack and state Representative Teresa Tanzi to introduce legislation to address the issue based on a law in New Jersey. In short, it would instruct cities and towns to use already-existing federal funding in a way that’s more beneficial to people who need warming centers in the winter, and cooling centers in the summer.

“This is absolutely a bill that protects people who are experiencing homelessness,” Morisseau said.

Brian Amaral can be reached at Follow him @bamaral44.