PROVIDENCE — Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor announced Friday that he planned to direct in state funds toward the prevention of homelessness, investing $3 million in an eviction-reduction program for low-income Rhode Islanders.
Services for the program will be provided by Rhode Island Legal Services, the Center for Justice, the Direct Action for Rights and Equality, and HousingWorks R.I., he said during a press conference about Rhode Island’s winter shelter strategy
The state is also investing $750,000 in “flexible financial assistance,” and $1 million in counseling for “housing problem solving.” Pryor said flexible assistance could include funds to help someone purchase a new pair of shoes in order to attend a job interview, among other things.
The Housing Department is also seeking a “handful of municipalities” to host overnight emergency hubs for people experiencing homelessness, for those who may lose hear and power in their homes this winter.
“These hubs will be available — for example — at [a] trigger temperature,” said Pryor. “If it reaches 20 degrees, these hubs would open.”
Pryor said he is working with city officials in Pawtucket and Providence to potentially install pallet shelters in one of two locations for 30 to 45 rapidly deployable units. Each unit, said Pryor, will have the capacity to house individuals experiencing homelessness.
Pryor said the state is still exploring additional shelter bed options inside church properties, vacant schools, empty retail locations, vacant state-owned property, municipally-owned vacant community centers, and unused former health care facilities. The state’s Housing Department has reached a preliminary agreement with the owner of a recently shuttered nursing home to acquire the property to permanently use it as family shelter, he also announced on Friday.
The now-former Charlesgate Nursing Center on Randall Street in Providence closed by May, after 50 years in operation. The owner cited the complicated and pricy costs of operating a health care facility for its reasons. In late June, homeless service provider Amos House began moving homeless families from extended-stay hotels into the former nursing facility. 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.
It’s not yet clear how much the state is potentially spending on the facility. Pryor declined to provide financial details on the agreement when pressed by the Globe, but said more information could be released as the acquisition process moves forward. A floor is being renovated, he said, and another 48 rooms for families will be made available sometime by January 2024, he said.
Pryor said that Governor Dan McKee has emphasized to him the potential of the state acquiring properties to use as shelter facilities in a “cost savings plan,” instead of paying pricey rent to property owners. Charlesgate won’t be the last example of this model, Pryor said.
Rhode Island has long struggled to stand up a winter shelter plan each year. Simultaneously, the housing crisis continues to price out Rhode Islanders from their home due to an aging housing stock and the lack of affordable housing. Due to the lack of critical state investments over several decades, service providers have often been left scrambling to shelter those experiencing homelessness in the coldest temperatures.
This year, McKee said, people should expect additional announcements about new shelter beds.
“There’s no perfect solution to this. Otherwise, it would be done… Again, we’re going to do our best,” said McKee.
With new investments in emergency winter shelter in Rhode Island, the state is increasing the number of beds for those experiencing homelessness by 30 percent. In October 2022, Pryor said the state had approximately 789 beds. By January 2024, he said the state should have around 1,370.
The Housing Department is also promoting Libby Kimzey to lead efforts on addressing family homelessness across the state. Kimzey will fill a newly created role that is based at the Housing Department, but will work “in partnership” with the Executive Office of Health and Human Services and the state’s Department of Administration, according to a news release from the Housing Department.