PROVIDENCE — During a cold snap in December 2010, Mike Marzullo remembers bringing six men into a stone-walled building on Public Street in South Providence. The metal door of the men’s shelter — now known as Emmanuel House — would shut behind him with a clang after welcoming in each person, directing them to a cot on the floor.
“We really didn’t know what to expect,” said Marzullo, the director of Emmanuel House.
The shelter, which was previously a diocesan day care center, was set up to provide a warm space for men without a home to sleep in that night. For the last 12 years, the mission of the shelter owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence hasn’t changed, but the dynamic and growing need for beds has.
On Monday, about 60 men were lying on bunk beds in a large room, out of freezing temperatures and safe from the snowfall that was expected to begin in Rhode Island within a few hours.
Jim Jahnz, the secretary for the Catholic Charities and Social Ministry, said they plan to add an additional 30 beds for women on the shelter’s second floor over the next few months. The expansion is expected to come at a time when homelessness advocates fear an overwhelming number of unsheltered Rhode Islanders will seek refuge within the next two months.
The Cranston Street Armory, which opened as an around-the-clock warming center shortly before Christmas Day, is expected to close in April. A state-owned property staffed by nonprofit Amos House and the Rhode Island National Guard, the armory has served hundreds of individuals seeking warmth and services. It’s faced several problems this winter so far: a lack of running water, windows blowing out from a cold snap in February, and countless complaints from neighbors.
But without the armory operating as a warming center, it’s unclear where these homeless individuals will go. One issue, some say, is the state’s lack of a winter plan every year.
Whether it’s cold temperatures, a snow storm, or heat wave “the state does not have a plan in place,” Eileen Hayes, the CEO of Amos House, said in a recent interview. “That means we are always scrambling.”
Amos House has sheltered 632 different individuals at the armory since it opened. Still, in the last two weeks, more than 400 people spent at least one night in a place not meant for human habitation, according to the state’s Homeless Management Information System. The armory was intended to be a temporary solution.
Newly appointed housing Secretary Stefan Pryor, who started traveling to shelters the week before his first official day on the job, said the state should be preparing for next winter this year and is “evaluating all innovative solutions.”
“We are undertaking best efforts in cooperation with Amos House, the Rhode Island National Guard, and other state and municipal partners we are working on options for the ramp down and anticipate that there likely will need to be multiple solutions,” Pryor said Tuesday.
He hasn’t found one definitive alternative to the armory’s “warming station.”
After decades of trying to find a use for the armory, the state hired Scout Ltd., a Philadelphia-based company, to come up with a plan for redevelopment. The company was about to host World Cup soccer watch parties in the building when Governor Dan McKee’s administration announced his plans to turn it into a 24/7 warming station.
What’s known of Scout’s vision could include an indoor recreation facility and artist spaces.
A promotional video produced by Providence-based Steer Forward to show off Scout’s vision for the property features figures like Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, and the president of the Guatemalan Soccer League of Rhode Island. Mayor Brett Smiley said the armory has long been a “large, kind of imposing building” to the neighborhood. He said there are “opportunities for recreation and employment.”
But there’s still a lot of ideas being thrown around.
“Manufacturing businesses can go into these spaces, metalsmithing, jewelry making, artists,” said Karina Wood, the executive director of Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses.
“A facility that would accommodate soccer in the community would actually help immensely,” said Kabba Joof, the owner of semi-professional men’s soccer team Rhode Island Reds FC. “Especially some of the younger people that we have around the Providence area.”
Siobhan Callahan, the interim executive director of the West Broadway Neighborhood Association (WBNA), wrote a letter to McKee on Tuesday, which was obtained by the Globe, asking him to add an amendment to his budget that would earmark $20 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds for phase one of development.
“It is unacceptable that, after a three-year process with a diverse group of community stakeholders to select Scout, we find ourselves again waiting for the state to move forward,” said Callahan. “We are all in agreement that the warming center needs to close in April as planned and that a humane transition plan for the unhoused... needs to be developed.”
During a Monday night WBNA meeting, Providence Council President Rachel Miller said Pryor has proposed a March 16 public meeting on the subject.
Brent Runyon, the executive director of the Providence Preservation Society, sat on a stakeholder committee on the armory for years and is advocating for the building to be used in a way that is “sympathetic to the building and surrounding neighborhoods.”
“Unlike the recent use of the building as a sound stage — which doesn’t engage the public and could literally take place in a warehouse on Huntington Avenue — we want to see a use that brings the public into the building,” Runyon told the Globe on Tuesday, mentioning the film studios that have been set up in the armory.
Runyon also said he is advocating for a community advisory committee focused on equity and justice that would have input on what other uses will go into it.
“An unused building is more likely to fall into disrepair and ultimately to be lost,” Runyon said.
But none of the plans included a warming shelter.
While plans for the armory to begin ramping down in less than two months, shelter stays elsewhere have become longer, backing up the system while Rhode Island’s lack of affordable housing stock reaches a crisis level.
Providence College sociology professor Eric Hirsch said he spoke to Pryor to advocate for the use of rapidly deployable pallet shelters to provide emergency winter housing for those in need. Pryor is interested in the prospect, which has been floated by House of Hope since 2020, but there are no concrete plans at this point.
“He is going to have to open hotel rooms or some building that can be immediately used as shelter, such as an unused dorm or empty state-owned building,” said Hirsch, who is also the co-chair of the state’s Homeless Management Information System Steering Committee. “[Pryor] has been very open to speaking with people and he’s been on outreach multiple times. That’s important but he needs to act.”
Back at Emmanuel House around 10 p.m. on Monday, Pryor turned to Jahnz and asked where he saw the greatest need. The issues are endless, but Jahnz said it “all came back to housing.”
“Even if you have two people earning minimum wage full time, they can’t afford any of the rents I’m seeing out there. Some are less expensive than having a mortgage,” said Jahnz. “But we don’t have enough homes for people to buy, either.”
Those seeking shelter are increasingly younger, sometimes newly 18, said Jahnz. Many also work full-time or have grueling, low-paying jobs.
Shortly before the lights turned out for the night, a young man who said his name was Kevin was sitting on a bottom bunk in the shelter room at Emmanuel House. He moved around a lot as a child, but has been staying at the shelter for nearly two months, he said. The previous day was his first full day at his new job as a solar panel salesman. He plans to save money to get into an apartment.
“I’m ready to have a life — if I can afford it,” he said. “But it’s hard out there.”