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Finding safe, warm housing — in the emergency room

Senator Joshua Miller and RI PBS Weekly producer Isabella Jibilian talk about what can be done to provide homeless people with better options than an emergency room

Rhode Island PBS Weekly producer Isabella Jibilian, left, and state Senator Joshua Miller, right, speak to Boston Globe reporter Edward Fitzpatrick on the Rhode Island Report podcast.Megan Hall

PROVIDENCE — With Rhode Island facing a housing crisis and shelter beds filled, some homeless people turn to emergency rooms to escape the cold or to just get a sandwich. But emergency rooms are expensive and often busy, and the use of ERs as temporary shelter highlights the need to provide more housing, advocates say.

On the Rhode Island Report podcast, state Senator Joshua Miller and Rhode Island PBS Weekly producer Isabella Jibilian talked about what can be done to provide homeless people with better options than the ER.

Miller, a Cranston Democrat who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, is sponsoring a bill that would allow Rhode Island to tap Medicaid funding, usually reserved for health care costs, to provide housing for people who have been chronically homeless.


“Housing is less expensive and more effective than going to an emergency room 100 times in one year,” Miller said. “Not only does the math work, the outcomes work much better.”

For a recent episode titled “No Place to Go,” Jibilian interviewed Maureen Sumner, a Rhode Island woman who battled addiction and spent six years living on the street, sometimes going to emergency rooms to get out of the cold at night.

“More people go to the E.R. for non-emergency services all the time,” Jibilian said. “They are the safety net for issues with housing, issues with access to health care. It’s leading to a degree of crowding that is really detrimental for the purposes of the E.R.”

After six years on a waiting list, Sumner now has an apartment in East Providence and is training to be a mentor for others experiencing homelessness, Jibilian said.

“She really highlights how a lot of the time we think that you have to solve someone’s problems and then give them housing,” Jibilian said. “But I think a lot of advocates have been talking about ‘housing first’ solutions. A lot of the times we think, ‘OK, someone has to be sober to then have housing,’ but it can go the other way around – that having housing means it’s easier to be sober, it’s easier when you don’t have to numb yourself to the cold outside.”


To get the latest episode each week, follow Rhode Island Report podcast on Apple Podcasts and other podcasting platforms, or listen in the player above.

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him @FitzProv.