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To tell the truth

Why have Gov. McKee, Housing Secretary Pryor, and Woonsocket Mayor Baldelli-Hunt created a misleading narrative about the homeless in RI?

Photo by Richard Asinof

David Cicilline, left, president and CEO of the RI Foundation, at the ceremony honoring Josie Byrd, center, with Benedict Lessing, Jr., president and CEO of the Community Care Alliance in Woonsocket in June.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 10/9/23
The growing demand for services for children and families at risk of becoming homeless in Rhode Island keeps growing, but the narrative being pushed out by Gov. Dan McKee and Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor would have the public believe that they have everything under control.
What is the connection between low Medicaid rates of reimbursement for providers and the continuing crises in health care and housing? What is the responsibility of news media outlets not to serve as mouthpieces for elected officials? Will the Attorney General investigate the failure of the McKee administration to spend funds allocated by the General Assembly? Why did the R.I. Department of Transportation throw out the belongings of the homeless person arrested for trespassing on Orms Street, including his birth certificate, his medical ID card, and his writings?
The most detailed, accurate report on those who are homeless in Rhode Island has been prepared by the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness, in its report, HMIS Bed Analysis Fall 2023.
According to Jennifer Barrera, the chief strategy officer at the Coalition, the current living situation number for those who need shelter has been hovering around 400 people for two weeks. In the last four years, Barrera said, there has been a large inflow, some 16,000 people. Most of the people coming in, she said, are sheltered, but they are in an at-risk situation. If you look at the 16,000 number, Barrera continued, that means one out of every 100 Rhode Islanders has contacted coordinated entry, seeking assistance, in the last four years. She told Steve Ahlquist: “We have 1,125 beds. We need, according to our queue, 1,661 beds.” Translated, “we need solutions for 712 people this winter.”

PROVIDENCE – Strange and stranger. An apparent news blackout surrounding the fact that Gov. Dan McKee and a number of his aides, including Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor, took part on a “tour” of three homeless encampments in Woonsocket on Friday afternoon, Sept. 29, was finally broken, following reporting by Steve Ahlquist and ConvergenceRI,

The “tour,” organized by Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, included some 15 officials, including Gov. McKee and 10 Woonsocket police officers. It ended with the arrest of two individuals, one for illegal drug possession of what was alleged to be crack cocaine, the other for possession of firearms – a loaded Colt .38 revolver and a 9mm ghost gun with a magazine that had the capacity to carry 15 rounds, according to police reports on the arrests.

The purported purpose of the “tour,” as explained by two Woonsocket City Council members after the fact was that it was alleged to serve as fact-finding visit to learn more about the unhoused people living in encampments. “It was merely for my own edification and fact-finding,” said Woonsocket Council President Christopher Beauchamp,” as reported by Steve Ahlquist.

Similarly, City Councilmember Brian Thompson had explained his involvement, speaking at the Woonsocket City Council meeting held on Monday, Oct. 2, by saying: “We embarked on this tour to gain a deeper understanding of what drives individuals into these encampments.”

But both those statements about the alleged purpose of the” tour,” conducted under the auspices of Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, however, were seemingly contradicted by the actual details contained in the police report detailing the two arrests made. Woonsocket police had apparently known about the presence of firearms at one of the encampments at least a week in advance of the tour.

According to the police report by Woonsocket Police Department Patrol Officer Robert Frye: “The prior week Detectives had obtained information that Junior [Martinez] was in possession of two firearms, one being a semi-automatic and another being a revolver.” The police report was obtained and shared by Pat Ford of Coalition Radio.

Critics, in turn, said that the “tour” had been organized as an elaborately staged theatrical event.

Misinformation and disinformation
Gov. McKee’s participation on the tour was never published as part of the Governor’s official public schedule, although apparently Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor knew all about it and allegedly provided an off-the-record briefing on it, in advance of “the tour.”

Initially, the “tour” was not covered by any other news media, except for the continuing reporting by Steve Ahlquist and by ConvergenceRI.

Who controls the narrative?
However, when other reporters began to ask questions about “the tour,” including WPRO’s Steve Klamkin, the apparent response by Gov. McKee, Secretary Pryor, and Mayor Baldelli-Hunt was to make themselves available to some of their favorite go-to media outlets.

On Thursday afternoon, six days after the “tour” occurred, in an apparent attempt to reset the narrative, Gov. McKee was a guest in studio with WPRO’s Matt Allen, during which the Governor repeated his erroneous claim, which went unchallenged by Allen, that homeless advocates were intent on “keeping the homeless, homeless.”

Gov. McKee also misrepresented, in ConvergenceRI’s opinion, what had occurred when the Cranston Street Armory was put into emergency service as a “warming” center for the unhoused population, following the state-mandated eviction of an encampment in the front of the State House in December of 2022.

Two hours later, on that very same Thursday afternoon, Secretary Pyror appeared as a guest on the Dan Yorke drive-time radio talk show on WPRO. Pryor attempted to spin the administration's alleged plans to increase the number of shelter beds available to the growing number of Rhode Island residents facing the threat of homelessness as winter quickly approaches.

The night before, Pryor had made a"late night phone call" to Boston Globe reporter Alexa Gagosz to share what the Secretary purported were the McKee administration's plans to increase the number of shelter beds available by 25 percent.

Even more questionable, perhaps, was the behavior of Mayor Baldelli-Hunt, who spoke with the editor of The Valley Breeze, Ethan Shorey, for a story published on Thursday. [Editor's Note: As one veteran reporter told ConvergenceRI, Mayor Baldelli-Hunt has never returned any of her phone calls.]

The Mayor made the unsubstantiated claim that the arrest of an individual at one of the homeless encampments during the "tour" had somehow prevented an imaginary carjacking from occurring.

"Baldell-Hunt said that she is convinced that officials saved a life by visiting the third site and getting law enforcement involved, saying  perspectives would have changed if a gun had been used in a carjacking at a nearby red light," Shorey wrote.

The Woonsocket police had known about the possession of guns by the individual at the encampment a week before the "tour " with Gov. McKee and Sec. Pryor,  according to the police report of the arrest. But neither the police nor Mayor Baldelli-Hunt had informed the Governor or the Secretary about the presence of guns.

Seeking out the facts
Winter is coming. Housing advocates in Northern Rhode Island told ConvergenceRI that the number of families and children sleeping outside is growing, and that there is a level of despair and desperation that the advocates say that they have not seen before.
ConvergenceRI reached out to Benefict Lessing, Jr., the president and CEO of Community Care Alliance, to get the agency's side of the story and the details about the current conditions regarding the housing situation in Woonsocket.

ConvergenceRI: What is the current situation in Woonsocket? How many people are seeking out services from your agency on a daily basis? Why is the demand so high?
LESSING : The Community Care Alliance is one of multiple community-based organizations assisting the unhoused in Woonsocket. What we know is 60+ unhoused people per day come to our Safe Haven drop-in center at the Josephine Byrd Community Services Building seeking shelter and other basic needs. These are only the folks we see consistently; based on staff outreach and the utilization of the local soup kitchen and Shower to Empower, we have known that there are many more.

ConvergenceRI: Why is there so much misinformation and distortion around the issues of housing and homelessness?
LESSING: First, homelessness is a moving target and changes daily due to the changing economic circumstances of individuals and families with children. Government officials tend to have a linear thought process and want to know how many people are homeless, how many encampments, where they are from, etc. Absent creating more capacity to address the need, the distortion becomes just that – and a way to remain static. As one Woonsocket Police Officer said to me months ago, he wondered where the urgency was as this should be an “all hands-on deck” crisis.

ConvergenceRI: Recently, the Governor and members of his staff went, at the invitation of Mayor Baldelli-Hunt, on a “tour” of encampments in Woonsocket. If you had the opportunity to arrange your own tour for the Governor, where might you take him? To meet with Josie Byrd? To meet with your hard-working staff?
LESSING: I would have Governor McKee first meet with our outreach staff to hear their stories to obtain a better sense of the pain and suffering that our clients endure daily. He would also hear about the people we have lost as a result of this crisis. The people that have died had family, friends, in many cases held jobs and had careers, in many respects, their lives have been cancelled.

Our staff, though committed and the most dedicated people I know, are tired and perpetually wondering where the government resources are to assist their clients.

ConvergenceRI: How can the news media do a better job in telling the story of what is happening re: the breakdown of funding for agencies by the state, the efforts to limit the ability of DCYF to intervene in housing families, the high demand for services related to substance misuse, and the heroic efforts by staff to keep people alive?
LESSING: I understand that the media gets tired of this story as well; it is big and complicated and will take years to address. That said, 40+ years ago, the progress that occurred relative to deinstitutionalization would not have happened if it were not for the news media persistently exposing the conditions under which people with serious mental illness and developmental disabilities were living in large warehouse like institutions.

That is needed now, and every news outlet ought to be engaged and continually looking at new aspects of the story. A case in point is homeless families and DCYF involvement. The Department stepped in attempting to address the problem in an effort to keep families out of the child welfare system unnecessarily but now has a problem with its budget and apparently is being told that it cannot continue this practice and that this is the responsibility of the Dept. of Housing.

Should DCYF be criticized for doing the right thing or made whole financially? The issue here is where the money is going to come from and ultimately who is responsible. If the media does not dig into these nuances, there simply is no accountability. Another example, the General Assembly passed a law creating the Interagency Council on Homelessness whose focus was to address homelessness as it cuts across multiple state agencies; the Council has not met since 2014 or so.

ConvergenceRI: What can the leaders in the General Assembly do to intervene?
LESSING: The General Assembly must provide better oversight and they must become educated where homelessness is concerned as it intersects with health care, behavioral health, child well-being, public health and public safety.

There are moral and ethical considerations that simply must be considered given the magnitude of this crisis. If the General Assembly both through oversight and connecting the dots through the budget process does not connect the dots, the state will miss an opportunity to strategically shape how this problem is addressed long term.

Starting from scratch every year is simply not an effective approach to addressing problems as homelessness and insufficient housing that impact the lives of thousands of people as well as the state’s economy.

ConvergenceRI: What questions haven’t I asked, should I have asked, that you want to talk about?
LESSING: There is very little appreciation for the reality that unhoused individuals are dying every month. This is something we simply do not talk about. If we examined them closely, these deaths provide glaring evidence of not only our lack of affordable housing in this state but also the inadequacies related to health care, behavioral health and child well-being as RI continues to hold the lowest rank in New England for child poverty.

Increasing numbers of families with children are on the brink of or becoming homeless. If we do not take multiple steps to address this situation now, we are simply perpetuating the trauma these children experience into the next generation.

I believe that Rhode Islanders across the state want to see their government be a force for good and address these problems proactively. Not doing so is a recipe for perpetual cynicism about broken systems and for the people living in these conditions, ongoing despair and stress.

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