PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Days after a homeless encampment was removed from Smith Hill, advocates are urging the state to focus on housing the hundreds of Rhode Islanders still living on the streets.
The encampment was removed after a judge sided with Gov. Dan McKee’s administration in a legal dispute over whether the state was allowed to force them to leave.
More than a dozen of homeless Rhode Islanders spent the past few weeks camped outside the State House in an effort to bring attention to what they believe is a lack of adequate housing and shelter.
The McKee administration handed out notices earlier this month to the homeless protesters, ordering them to leave the State House grounds. However, a judge’s decision allowed them to remain there while a lawsuit filed on their behalf was under review.
McKee confirmed that all of the protesters were offered shelter, transportation and a place to store their belongings, but not all of them accepted.
The state opened a 24-hour warming station inside the Cranston Street Armory Friday afternoon, just hours after the lawsuit was struck down.
The Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness tells 12 News the state needs to focus “on the other 500 Rhode Islanders who remain unhoused,” adding that it is urging the governor to take immediate action and declare a state of emergency.
On top of that, the coalition is proposing the state deploy $15 million in resources to add 380 shelter beds and ensure homeless Rhode Islanders have access to adequate resources.
The coalition suggested the state also reenact the Interagency Council on Homeless, which would be tasked with developing a plan to address homelessness statewide.
If the state provides these resources, the coalition said it would “immediately reach out to every unsheltered Rhode Islander to connect them to an open bed or support.”
“Our focus now should be working together until everyone has a warm place this winter,” the coalition said in a statement Monday. “It’s time to put this plan in place to ensure that every unhoused Rhode Islander is a priority, not just those in the state’s front yard.”
In a letter sent last week, Rhode Island Housing Secretary Josh Saal said he’s been “concerned about the lack of real-time information” being provided by homeless advocates such as the coalition.
“With real time information, the state can better deploy the appropriate resources to help those experiencing homelessness, especially those who may be exposed to extremely cold temperatures and at risk of hospitalization due to hypothermia,” Saal wrote.
Saal requested “all records of street outreach engagements be documented” in the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) promptly. He also asked that any and all updates be shared with his office on a regular basis to get a better picture of the situation statewide.
“We respect the privacy and safety of people experiencing homelessness, and a data-sharing agreement has been negotiated between my office and the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness to address any such concerns,” Saal continued.
Saal requested the coalition hand over the locations for 80 known homeless encampments, as well as an up-to-date “waiting list” of those in need of a shelter bed. With that information, Saal said the state can “budget and quickly shift resources” to communities with the most need.
“Ultimately, our goal is to effectuate policies and practices that make homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring,” he said. “Our expectation is that all of our homeless service providers will continue to work hand-in-hand with us towards this goal.”
Caitlin Frumerie, the executive director of the coalition, said in a letter to Saal Monday that her team plans on coordinating with Saal’s office on the next steps to share that information.
“As we have discussed with the department in summer 2022, we have drafted online ‘live’ data dashboards to share real time information,” she wrote. “We would love to work with your team to bring this project over the finish line.”
The governor requested the coalition release the locations of the dozens of reported homeless encampments. But Jennifer Barrera, the coalition’s chief strategy officer, said their data only notes which regions the camps are in and not specific addresses.
“The privacy and security of people experiencing homelessness is paramount,” Barrera previously told 12 News.
Frumerie confirmed the coalition has shared provided the state with all relevant data.
“On each occasion you have requested this information, we have stated that the coalition does not have this information in its possession, custody or control,” she wrote. “We have provided approximate locations by region and redirected the state to street outreach providers who can best provide the requested information.”
Frumerie added that the “oft-cited” reference to the encampments is an estimate based on street outreach performed in early fall 2022.
She said outreach workers did share a “heat map” of homeless encampments with the state “shortly after its creation.”
Frumerie reiterated that tracking or sharing encampment location information in HMIS “would not be without reservations,” and could result in unintended harm to those living on the streets.
She suggested Saal reach out to the various street outreach providers for “more precise location data.”
In response to Saal’s request for a “waiting list,” Frumerie said the coalition provided a full “deidentified export” last Thursday.
“We also do not want Rhode Islanders living outside, particularly in this cold weather,” Frumerie wrote. “However, we cannot, because of federal law and regulations, and social justice reasons, allow persons residing at a specific encampment to ‘cut the line’ in front of other unsheltered Rhode Islanders who are of higher acuity.”
“This prioritization process, mandated by law, is intended to ensure those who are most likely to die outdoors are prioritized first for any available resource or shelter bed,” she continued.
Frumerie said the best way to support those living in homeless encampments is to work together to bring more shelter beds online, as well as provide legal, financial and rental assistance to those interested.
“Our hope is that we can work together to do what we can this winter and immediately begin planning for next winter so we do not end up in this same place again next year,” Frumerie concluded.
12 News reached out to representatives for Saal and McKee regarding the coalition’s letter. A spokesperson for the governor declined to comment on Tuesday.
Jennifer Barrera, chief strategy officer for the coalition, noted that the state’s homelessness crisis wasn’t caused by any one person or situation, adding that it existed long before the pandemic.
“This is not an anomaly that just happened in the last two weeks,” she said. “This has been playing out quietly in our state for years … our system has been under-resourced, and we just need to make sure that we plan collaboratively so that everyone in the system is working together towards the same goal.”
Barrera said the coalition is in the process of developing legislation to address the statewide increases in rent.
“I think our General Assembly has a really nice opportunity coming up … to really support some key pieces of legislation that will affect all Rhode Islanders that are experiencing housing instability,” she said.