BURRILLVILLE, R.I. — Next week, the Housing Department is expected to begin “recruiting” families in need of shelter to stay in vacant cottages on the Zambarano campus of Eleanor Slater Hospital. It’s just one of a handful of shelter projects that have been months in the making, and are finally starting to get off the ground before the coldest months of the year.
Up to 30 Rhode Islanders, including young children, will be able to seek shelter in the three vacant cottages on the hospital’s grounds, explained state Housing Secretary Stefan I. Pryor on a late-night phone call with the Globe on Wednesday.
Nonprofit Tri-County Community Action Agency will oversee the shelter and Ehren Hunt, its housing specialist, will serve as the site manager, Pryor said. The three cottages were previously used as group homes staffed by Phoenix House for a substance-abuse recovery program for adolescents and teens.
This latest news is part of a grander plan the state’s Housing Department expects to unveil next week regarding winter shelter for all experiencing homelessness, which Pryor said will increase the number of beds by 25 percent compared to last winter, which would be a more than 100 percent increase compared to the winter of 2020. However, he would not confirm the total number of shelter beds that will be funded this winter.
“We’re not done yet,” Pryor said, indicating more shelter beds could be announced in the coming weeks.
Over the last several months, the number of homeless encampments in the greater Providence area have increased due to the lack of available shelter space. Whether to allow people who are homeless to stay on public and private land is an ongoing debate. Most times, such encampments are dismantled and individuals and supportive service providers are left scrambling.
It’s unclear if these additional beds this winter will be enough amid Rhode Island’s ongoing shortage of shelter beds for individuals and families — an issue that was exacerbated by the pandemic and the state’s housing crisis.
Last week, the department announced it had issued $10 million in funding to 27 organizations for 66 projects to provide emergency shelter, street outreach operations, and other services through the Consolidated Homeless Fund. Some providers who are recipients of the funds told the Globe they felt these dollars were dispersed too closely to the coldest months, and did not give them enough time to properly prepare and staff. On Wednesday, Pryor pushed back on those claims.
“It’s not late in the least,” he said. “There were multiple new projects and other opportunities arising this year. We have been proactively identifying sites [for shelter] and welcoming service provider inquiries and collaborations regarding and at these sites.
“This is a process that has been evolving over multiple months,” he added.
Rhode Island has long lacked family shelter, with less than 50 permanent units designated to unhoused individuals with children across the state.
After months of back and forth, the state began moving homeless families from extended-stay hotels into a recently shuttered nursing home, the Charlesgate Nursing Center on Randall Street in Providence, in late June. Amos House, a homeless service provider, has staffed the facility and provided wrap-around case management services for those staying there. Pryor confirmed other providers have also leased floors to shelter homeless individuals, but that the Housing Department is not involved in those transactions.
The Housing Department is spending $72,000 in monthly rent to Davenport Associates, the property’s owner who shuttered the nursing home, for 57 of the tower’s 120 rooms. But it’s a cost he’s hoping to eventually reduce, and said he is “actively in negotiations” with the property owner to potentially acquire Charlesgate.
Pryor would not confirm to the Globe any dollar amount the state agency would be willing to pay for Charlesgate, but hopes to get a deal done “by the end of this calendar year.” It’s also unclear if he plans to retain the property as a shelter site, or if it could be converted into permanent housing for low-income families.
For the last several winters, advocates including Laura Jaworski, the executive director of House of Hope, has been trying to work with the state to propose the use of rapidly deployable pallet shelters to provide emergency winter housing for those in need. In more than one proposal shared with the state, Jaworski has said her nonprofit could manage and staff the shelter, which could include about 20 to 30 shelter units dubbed “Echo Village.” Some town leaders have come out strongly against the idea in the past, but other areas of New England — like Boston and Burlington, Vt. — have used pallet shelters.
Pryor said said the state is still looking at potential sites where these pallet shelters could be located.
“We are in active discussions in more than one city in our state,” said Pryor, but admitted the negotiations remained at a “high level” and that the department was still “drafting site plans. “We are working with municipal leaders, so we will have more to say on that next week, or in the coming weeks.”
Shelter for homeless individuals without children is only slightly less complicated to establish, but Pryor said some existing programs, like the makeshift shelter inside the Motel 6 in Warwick, will continue.
In December 2022, the state opened the long-vacant Cranston Street Armory as an “around-the-clock warming center,” which saw more than 150 homeless individuals seeking shelter and supportive services nightly during its peak. The site lacked proper plumbing and adequate bathrooms inside, forcing individuals to use portable toilets outdoors. During one February night, the windows blew out from the frigid temperatures. The site shut down in mid-May — about a month after the state intended to close it.
When asked if the state was contemplating reopening the Armory as a shelter this year, Pryor said it was “not in their plans.”
Pryor also said the department planned to announce two new appointments: a head of the housing division, and a head of the homelessness division. He said Hannah Moore, who previously served closely with him in Rhode Island Commerce and who he brought on as the state’s assistant housing secretary, would not serve in either position.
On separating homelessness and housing into two different divisions, Pryor said the state was “acknowledging these are related fields, but there is an abundance of work to be done in each.”