Innovation Ecosystem

The Dignity Bus may not be stopping in Woonsocket

Nonprofit agency says it was forced to pull plug on working with RI after five months of delays and bureaucratic snafus, but deal maybe rescued by City Council

Photo courtesy of Anthony Zorbaugh

The Dignity Bus under construction.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 5/15/23
The hidden story of how the state failed in its efforts to arrange the purchase of a retrofitted RV, known as a Dignity Bus,to serve the homeless population in Woonsocket.
What went wrong with Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor’s negotiations about purchasing the Dignity Bus? What was Gov. McKee’s position on the Dignity Bus? Were the Senate President and the House Speaker ever briefed about the Dignity Bus? At what point will the pubic relations tactics being deployed by the McKee administration backfire? How much is the state paying an attorney from Savage Partners LLC to represent it with the Dignity Bus contract negotiations?
The appointment of Richard Charest to serve as the Secretary of the R.I. Executive Office of Health and Human Services may prove to be problematic, if the McKee administration is challenged about the future positioning of the Medicaid office as a continued integral part the agency. The low rates of Medicaid reimbursement continue to be the linchpin in the breakdown of the health care workforce, the behavioral health care delivery system, the nursing home industry, and the growing lack of primary care providers in the state.
Charest came out of retirement to lead the R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities, and Hospitals. He represents a very different image than either Womazetta Jones or Ana Novais, in terms of pushing for greater diversity and health equity.

Editor's Note: ConvergenceRI is republishing this story from the May 15, 2023, edition as a result of several important updates. First, Joseph Lindstrom, press spokesman for Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor, issued a statement about the Dignity Bus. [See link below to statement.] The statement, issued at 7 p.m. on Monday, May 15, says that the state remains “open to revisiting this idea -- in collaboration with potential host ocmmunities -- under the right conditions." The reponse from Lindstrom comes some 10 days after the initial request, made by ConvergenceRI on Saturday, May 5, for a comment on the Dignity Bus, was made. If the deal is to be resurrected, it will probably occur with the Woonsocket City Council acting upon it.

Second, through an unfortunate set of circumstances, a story first published by ConvergenceRI on Monday, May 8, was misused by RI News Today without proper attribution, leading to an inaccurate story. Worse, Channel 10's Gene Valicenti and RINews Today wrongly claimed credit for breaking the story, in a broadcast on May 15. That error has been corrected on the WJAR website. As a result, ConvergenceRI has had go terminate any permission with RI News Today to share content. Thanks to reporter Cal Dymowski for making the correction.

PROVIDENCE – There is a famous Ben Shahn poster that illustrates the saying, “You have not converted a man [or woman] because you have silenced him [or her].”

Here in Rhode Island, perhaps the corollary in 2023 might be: “You have not converted a journalist by dissembling the truth.”

Witness the recent attempt by WPRI reporter Anita Baffoni to pin down Gov. Dan McKee last week, asking him where the remaining homeless individuals would be able to find shelter after the closing of the Cranston Street Armory, scheduled for Monday, May 15.

“In total, we should be able to have shelter for those individuals that want it,” Gov. McKee said, dissembling the truth in his answer to Baffoni’s question, who had inquired whether there were additional options that were not made public.

There were. The Governor was, ah, apparently being less than forthcoming.

For all the news releases, media announcements, photo ops, op-eds, and self-serving pronouncements in the last six months by Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor and Gov. Dan McKee, focused on finding solutions to the housing and homelessness crises – and all of the dutiful reporting done in the wake of such pronouncements – the story of what happened with plans to hire a small Florida nonprofit to retrofit an RV as a mobile emergency homeless shelter, known as a “Dignity Bus,” with up to 20 beds, and plans to then deploy the Dignity Bus to Woonsocket, in an initiative promoted by the Governor’s office and by the Rhode Island Foundation, remain hidden behind a woeful tale of what appears to be bureaucratic mismanagement.

The director of a nonprofit homeless ministry, Anthony Zorbaugh, has accused the state of Rhode Island, and in particular, Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor, of engaging in  arrogant behavior in the negotiations, which led to a decision by the board of directors of Zorbaugh’s organization to pull the plug on the deal late Wednesday night, May 10, after five months of delays.

As reported by ConvergenceRI in its May 8 edition: What got lost in the flood of managed news coverage was the apparent failure by Secretary Pryor and the McKee administration to pull the trigger on spending $175,000 to purchase what is known as a ‘Dignity Bus” – a 45-foot “overnight shelter on wheels’ that can accommodate up to 20 people at risk of homelessness, targeted to begin operation in Woonsocket. The ‘Dignity Bus” was being built by a nonprofit group in Vero Beach, Florida.

The story continued: The initiative, which had the support of Gov. McKee and Neil Steinberg, president of The Rhode Island Foundation apparently has been caught up in contract negotiations with state purchasing, according to sources.

Further, the story quoted a representative of the Rhode Island Foundation: “We are ready to provide $90,000 to staff the bus for the first six months, contingent on the purchase of the bus – presumably by the state – and the state executing an agreement with Community Care Alliance to manage the bus,” Chris Barnett of the Rhode Island Foundation told ConvergenceRI on Friday afternoon, May 12.

However, Stefan Pryor’s office issued a “no comment” about the status of the Dignity Bus. And Olivia DaRocha, the Governor’s spokesperson, did not respond to questions asked by ConvergenceRI by email.

Let’s not make a deal
Here’s the gist of what happened: On the day before Thanksgiving, at the behest of Gov. Dan McKee, Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, reached out to Anthony Zorbaugh, executive director of a nonprofit in Vero Beach, Fla., “I Am The Source,” to request that a retrofitted RV with the capacity to house up to 20 individuals on a temporary basis be built, asking them to construct the vehicle with a quick turnaround time.

As readers may recall, the situation at the State House was tenuous, at best, as a homeless encampment had arisen outside the entrance to the “People’s House.” The McKee administration, which had been meeting in private with housing advocates throughout the fall, had resisted declaring an emergency and had instead demanded greater accountability for the money that had already been spent.

The McKee administration went to court to evict those homeless individuals who had staged the encampment. [The legal move to evict the homeless encampment led to an apparent disagreement with R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha, a dispute that is still playing out in budget disagreements between the Governor and the Attorney General’s office.]

The retrofit of what is known as the Dignity Bus was completed by mid-December, two weeks after the initial request was delivered by Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, at the behest of the Governor, according to Zorbaugh.

Yet, for the next five months, the Dignity Bus, which was to be deployed by the Community Care Alliance, remained stalled for the lack of a contract from the state’s purchasing department. Then, when a contract was finally issued by the state’s purchasing department in early May, the changed details in the contract were so onerous, according to Zorbaugh, that this organization felt it had no choice but to seek to deploy the Dignity Bus elsewhere.

“It’s different if you’re dealing with a for-profit company, but we are a homeless ministry,” Zorbaugh told ConvergenceRI. “I’m using former homeless people to house themselves. They’re the ones who are building this [Dignity Bus]. So, the [state of Rhode Island] didn’t just crap on our agency; they crapped on people in another state who were formerly homeless.”

Zorbaugh continued: “This could have been a beautiful, beautiful story, if you have former homeless people building beds for current homeless people, to help them out of this situation. It could have been amazing..”

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Anthony Zorbaugh, executive director of I Am The Source, a nonprofit homeless ministry in Vero Beach, Fla., conducted in a phone conversation on Thursday morning, May 11.

ConvergenceRI: The state of Rhode Island approached you, you didn’t approach the state; is that correct?
ZORBAUGH: Exactly. The Governor went to [the Rhode Island Foundation]. And the Foundation approached us, the day before Thanksgiving.

ConvergencceRI: Was it Neil Steinberg who approached you?
ZORBAUGH: It was Neil Steinberg, yes. And, we have emails and receipts for all of our conversations that can totally back up what I am telling you.

Neil Steinberg came to us and said, “Hey, your program, the Dignity Bus, landed on the Governor’s desk.” The Governor has about several [homeless] people camped out at his office downtown. And they need a solution on providing beds in our community. How quickly can you get a bus built? And how much would it cost?

So, we told them that our population, I currently operate two of them [Dignity Buses] in the state of Florida. I have 36 beds that have operated for the last two years. And, I could build you a bus and get it to you for $150,000.

ConvergenceRI: What happened next?
ZORBAUGH: They said, how quickly could you build it? I said I can build it and have it done in two weeks.

So, this bus has been sitting for five months. [We had been] waiting and waiting and waiting [to get] a state contract [from the purchasing department] for the last five months. We finally got the purchasing contract, and it was horrendous. It was one of the most horrendous things you could have imagined.

Mind you, the state [of Rhode Island] hasn’t paid for anything, up until this point. Not one dime. Not a deposit. Not anything, right? I am not a bus builder. I am a small nonprofit. I am not a bus company.

I don’t have hundreds  of thousands of dollars of disposable revenue. I can’t put this bus on the market and say, “Hey, anyone want to buy a mobile shelter?”

They literally came to us and said: “We have a problem. You have a solution. Can you help us?”

As we started to build it, they constantly changed the contract and the terms. They wanted to have the bus meet what is called ANSI certification. An ANSI certification is for RVs that come off an assembly line.

We explained to them that we are an RV bus conversation company. We are not a factory that produces RVs off an [assembly] line. We did the homework; they did the homework. They sent us to a guy in Connecticut that certifies buses and RVs.

The guy in Connecticut, put us in touch with a guy in Florida, who then charged us $1,000 to get the bus certified from the national RV Institute. And, it passed with flying colors. It met all of the standards, plus some, on a national level.

So, it got that certification. Then, the state [of Rhode Island] came back and said: “Now you need emissions insurance, which cost another $5,000 bucks.

The community foundation of Rhode Island paid for the bus inspection, and paid for the insurance. Then, a week ago, we got the final purchase order from the state. And, what [Housing Secretary] Stefan Pryor wants us to do is, he wants us to transport the bus, to the state of Rhode Island, make sure it passes a state of Rhode Island inspection, and then, the state will release funds.

So, our attorneys and our board of directors said: “That’s the most absurd thing on the planet.” You are buying a vehicle from out of state. We don’t have the capability of knowing, out of 50 states that each have different safety standards, what’s going to pass and what’s not going to pass.

We said, “The bus is sold as is.” We will deliver it to the nonprofit in Woonsocket [the Community Care Alliance of RI]. We will train them on how to use it. Spend two days with them. And we need 50 percent up front, because the bus is already built, and 50 percent when we deliver it.

And, as of last night [Wednesday, May 13], the attorney that is representing the state said that they are not willing to budge on their terms.

ConvergenceRI: Did you ever speak directly with Stefan Pryor?
ZORBAUGH: I spoke to him twice. On Zoom calls.

ConvergenceRI: And, when were those calls?
ZORBAUGH: I would say a month ago was the last time that he spoke to us with his purchasing department and his attorney.

ConvergenceRI: What were your interactions with Secretary Pryor like?
ZORBAUGH: He is one of the most horrible people to talk to on the phone. He is very condescending. We said: “We didn’t come to you. You came to us, right?

On good faith, we had former homeless people build you this bus. And build it to a standard that supersedes anything that is out in the community. And we were willing to deliver this to you. It’s your responsibility as the owner to get it inspected. Right?

We recently had a call with the head of [the Woonsocket] city council. He tried to intervene. He tried to speak to the Governor.On Monday.[May 8].; they were on a conference call.

And he said, afterwards, the bus isn’t coming to Woonsocket, they’re going to do something with hotel owners.

ConvergenceRI: Did you ever speak directly to the Governor?
ZORBAUGH: I have not; Neil Steinberg has. And Neil Steinberg is flabbergasted. So, last night, we made the decision to [call it quits].

They continuously told us, you know, when we asked [about the contract]: No answers, no answers, no answers. For weeks, we wouldn’t get a response. For weeks.

Finally, this past Monday, when we contacted their attorney’s office, the state wanted us to do some repairs. They had spent money to send a guy from RIPTA to come to Florida. I picked him up at the airport, I transported him to our location, which is about an hour and a half each way, spending time with him. He spends about 15 minutes with the bus. And he comes back with a list of repairs that he wanted us to do.

So, our mechanic that we take [the Dignity Bus] to, a third-party mechanic, gave the state of Rhode Island Department of Transportation certification, saying that the bus is roadworthy. [We asked: why are you going to spend money on something that doesn’t need repairs, unless it is broken. We suggested to the state to give that money, it was like $11,000, to Ben Lessing and his nonprofit, CCA, so that they could put it in escrow, so if something did happen, he has funding to repair it. They didn’t want to do that, either.

So, every thing that they proposed is just so outrageous that it absolutely made no sense.

As of yesterday, we are at a total loss for words. Our board of directors, our legal counsel has said, "lLsten, let’s put the bus in use, it’s obvious that they don’t want to do anything with it."
Our mechanic, on Monday, because the bus has been sitting in Orlando, at the mechanic’s shop for three weeks, waiting for the state [of Rhode Island]l to say, let’s go, let’s get these repairs done.

The mechanic’s shop called me Sunday night saying ,“If you don’t come get this bus this week, I have to charge you storage fees, because I have limited space.It’s going to be $100 a day to store your bus here."

I passed that on to the state. You know, we’re sitting on Thursday, and I’m going to get the bus today, and I’m going to have to pay [the mechanic] $400 for storage, because the state refuses to respond.

Literally, I have had 20 beds ready to go, since December.

ConvergenceRI: So, the retrofit of the bus was finished in December?
ZORBAUGH: Yes, since mid-December.

ConvergencceRI: Five months?
ZORBAUGH: I know. I know. It’s absolutely absurd. And, everything that keeps coming out is, ”Oh, we’re working with them; we’re working with them.” But they are not.

ConvergenceRI: Do you remember the name of the attorney representing the Governor whom you were dealing with?
ZORBAUGH: It’s Christopher Fragomeni, with Savage Law Partners LLP.

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