PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The state is putting the finishing touches on its 24-hour warming station for the homeless, which is set to open inside the Cranston Street Armory Friday.
The warming station is expected to open at 5 p.m. Friday. The vendor that will be contracted to operate it has yet to be publicly announced.
Gov. Dan McKee has activated up to 50 Rhode Island National Guard members to temporarily help run the shelter, which includes a sleeping area, a medical facility, a cafeteria/gathering space and an office where provider services will be available.
“It’s as a full service shelter that’s going to be open 24/7 through April 15,” McKee said.
Maj. Gen. Christopher Callahan said National Guard members have been assisting with preparations since Monday.
The shelter will open the same day a hearing will resume on a lawsuit filed on behalf of roughly two dozen homeless individuals living in tents outside the Rhode Island State House.
Attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Rhode Island Center for Justice filed the complaint Tuesday seeking to halt the McKee administration’s attempt to clear them from the grounds.
The homeless individuals are camping in protest outside the State House because they claim there is a lack of adequate housing and shelter statewide. The lawsuit alleges that the McKee’s administration’s attempt to remove them from the grounds infringes on their rights.
The McKee administration handed out notices last week to the homeless individuals that stated they must leave the grounds within 48 hours. But a judge’s decision allowed them to remain for the time being, with a temporary restraining order set to expire on Dec. 19.
A spokesperson for the governor argued that every person in the encampment was offered shelter, transportation and a place to store their belongings.
The state is also prepared to show the court that those still camping outside the State House have all been offered shelter beds, and while a majority of them decided to accept that offer, not everyone did.
“Our team will continue to conduct outreach to the few who have declined emergency shelter beds that have been offered,” McKee spokesperson Andrea Palagi said in the statement Thursday.
McKee reiterated that he will let the situation play out in court, but that his administration was continuing to work to provide shelter for those who need or want it.
“There’s people that are driving that case that are really continually working to keep the homeless, homeless, and that is disturbing,” he said.
Sen. Cynthia Mendes, who slept in a tent outside the State House last winter, remains critical of the governor’s decisions.
“The governor is afraid to face the fact that he is utterly failing, and there are lives on his hand. People will die,” Mendes said.
Mendes shared interactions captured on video with R.I. State Police and Capitol Police when she was camped outside the State House last year. She said Capitol Police originally threatened to arrest her, but police ended up telling her she had the right to stay.
“The ongoing attempt by Governor McKee and his administration to evict and displace dozens of unhoused people from State House Plaza is purely an attempt to hide from public view his utter failure to keep his word for a safe and dignified housing and shelter plan for the winter,” Mendes said in a statement.
McKee said his administration is seeking answers from the R.I. Coalition to End Homelessness when it comes to locating dozens of reported homeless encampments.
Jennifer Barrera, chief strategy officer for the coalition, said their data indicates there are 80 encampments that exist in Rhode Island. But the coalition only notes which regions the camps are located in and not specific addresses.
“The privacy and security of people experiencing homelessness is paramount,” Barrera explained.
Barrera said a street outreach team and providers are working directly in the field with those living in the encampments.
“Our population is very vulnerable and really we want to make sure to prevent folks from any physical harm we want to prevent folks from any physical harm,” she said. “We want to prevent their encampments from being requested to be removed or vacated, or any other property from being damaged or stolen.”
McKee said he also wants the coalition to respond to a letter sent to them from Kevin Aucoin, acting director of the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF). In it, he expresses concerns about reports of parents and children living in encampments around the state.
“That’s an obligation that we all have to make sure, that any young people are really serviced and that we provide warm shelter for them,” McKee said.
Aucoin wrote that the DCYF is prepared to give shelter and support to families experiencing homelessness.
“We can’t ignore the peril of children and parents residing in encampment areas and/or in vehicles,” Aucoin said. “Allowing any child to be exposed to the harsh weather elements at this time of year directly impacts on the safety and well-being of the child and the parent.”
Aucoin asked the coalition to refer those families to the DCYF for support and assistance.
Barrera confirms the coalition received the letter. She said the coalition has been collaborating with the department, adding that there are various agencies and partners are involved in the discussions.
“Our goal is to make sure that every family, including children, have the resources available. We do have protocols in place to connect folks with any of the resources they may need,” Barrera said.