Delivery of Care

Waiting for a rebirth of housing, hope, and wonder

As the state struggles to find enough emergency shelter beds to house RI's most vulnerable residents, advocates yearn for a rebirth of housing

Photo by Jocelyn Anderson Photography, from her Twitter feed. Published with permission of the photographer.

A one-day-old Sandhill Crane peaks out from under Mom's wing while a three-day-old colt ventures about the nest.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 5/1/23
The city of Woonsocket plans to buy the former state-owned property at 181 Cumberland St. following a determination by former Department of Administration Director James Thorsen that the property was surplus to the state’s needs. The city plans to use the building to meet the potential future needs of the Department of Public Works, using $730,000 in ARPA funds to purchase the building, at a time when Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor is desperate to find emergency shelter for vulnerable state residents.
How complicit was the McKee administration, working through former DOA Director Thorsen and DCAMM Director Patten, in facilitating the eviction of the community agency from the state-owned property? Why did legislative leaders appear to give tacit approval to the eviction? Will the Attorney General intervene to halt the sale of the property until it can be further investigated? Why have the news media been silent about the ongoing machinations regarding the sale of the property?
The veneer of competency projected by the McKee administration continues to become unglued. The ongoing failure by the McKee administration to acknowledge the emergency crisis in housing and homelessness, with the lack of shelter space, can no longer be swept under the rug. When State Sen. Sam Zurier calls the Governor’s Learn 365 RI Strategy “not a plan” in his weekly letter to his constituents, it represents a sea change. Attorney General Peter Neronha’s advisory ruling on ARPA requests, and his challenges to the Governor around fiscal issues in funding the AG’s office, represent a direct threat to the Governor’s attempt to sail above the fray concerning his policies.
At some point, the nonprofit community agency leaders are going to break their silence about what really has happened with the failure around providing emergency shelters – and face the wrath of an often petulant McKee whose behavior has often appeared to be retaliatory in the past.
When I think of mayors, I often recall my interactions with Mayor Frank Rizzo, whom I was invited to meet after a news conference in 1973, when I was a college student, and been standing in front of the seal of Philadelphia, had our photograph taken, shaking hands. I wouldn’t be the first to let go, and neither would he, so for almost two minutes, we stood talking, shaking hands, an event captured on half-inch black and white video, buried in my metal filing cabinets in storage.
A week after the event, I received a photo, autographed by Mayor Rizzo, with best wishes, part of the extraordinary public relations campaign he undertook to shore up his image with the public. Former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci practiced a similar art of public relations.
In this week’s dinner table conversation, I envision a gathering of the former mayors of Providence – Congressman David Cicilline, former Mayor Jorge Elorza, former Mayor Angel Taveras, and former Mayor Joseph Paolino – in a discussion at the Rice Garden restaurant, with community advocate Linda Perri and State Sen. Tiara Mack as hosts, asking the former mayors about their future vision of Providence.

PROVIDENCE – Strange days have found us. Whatever vestiges of a safety net that once existed for Rhode Island’s most vulnerable residents seem to have been blown apart by the evidence presented at the most recent news conference held late Friday afternoon by Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor [to which ConvergenceRI did not receive an invitation].

At the gathering, Secretary Pryor announced that the closing of the emergency shelter at the Cranston Street Armory would be delayed at least until May 15, a month later than originally planned, because there was an ongoing mad scramble to meet the unmet needs of Rhode Islanders living without shelter.

In detailed, excellent reporting by The Boston Globe’s Alexa Gagosz following the news conference, the timeline of the failed great expectations of the state to provide emergency shelter became more clear:

The shelter at the Cranston Street Armory, operated by Amos House, was supposed to close by April 15.

• Then the Armory’s shelter closing was extended until April 30.

• When the Armory first came on line in December of 2022, in response to the homeless encampment in front of the State House, the McKee administration anticipated that the un-housed population needing shelter beds would be approximately 60 people, but the Armory ended up serving, on average, more than 150 per day.

• The Armory is being considered for redevelopment by Philadelphia-based firm Scout Ltd. for $56 million, but plans cannot move forward until the building is no longer serving as a shelter. [The details of what occurred during a disastrous March 10 business trip undertaken by former DOA Director James Thorsen and DCAMM Director David Patten, now on medical leave, in their meeting with representatives from Scout, which included a $250 lunch tab, still remain hidden and veiled by the McKee administration.]

• Providence Mayor Smiley did not support the second extension, in large part because the Armory lacked infrastructure, had serious safety issues, and could not serve as a permanent shelter solution. [More telling, perhaps, was the drain on city services: Since the shelter first opened in mid-December of 2022, more than 40 percent of all emergency calls in the city have been related to the Armory’s shelter, according to city officials.]

• By its own admission, the state has had great difficulty in trying to identify additional shelter facilities that can be "stood up" throughout the state –including facilities on Eddy Street, an abandoned church on Westminster Street, and the Motel 6 in Warwick [where in early April a 15-year-old runaway from DCYF custody was given a fentanyl-laced pill and died].

• Among the problematic start-and-stops in attempts providing emergency housing were the state’s plans to collaborate with rehab efforts by developer Michael Mota, in order to create an emergency shelter at the former Memorial Hospital property, to be run by Amos House. However, those discussions about leasing the former hospital were short-circuited when R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha intervened with a lawsuit, challenging efforts to foreclose on the hospital property. [Mota’s alleged history of shady business dealings and his inability to pay outstanding debts were reported on by The Boston Globe’s Amanda Milkovits.]

Translated, the numbers of Rhode Islanders who lack shelter and those who are at risk of becoming homeless keep growing, exceeding the capacity of the state’s capability to house them. According to the recent $1 million report produced by the Boston Consulting Group at the behest of the Rhode Island Foundation:

• Nearly 2,000 individuals with diverse needs were in emergency shelters or unsheltered in Rhode Island as of March 2023.

• As of March 2023, a cumulative total of 380 individuals had been counted in Rhode Island’s homelessness information management system as "being unsheltered in the previous 14 days. without resolution."

There appears to be no workable plan in place to deal with the burgeoning number of victims of the economic fallout of the ongoing housing and homelessness crisis in Rhode Island. Instead, there is a growing list of shandas – the Yiddish word for scandals – that have been created by the attempts by the Gov. Dan McKee and his administration to apply band-aids to the problems.

To quote the character Gomer Pyle from the Andy Griffith Show, “Surprise. Surprise. Surprise.”

What comes next?
In the aftermath of Secretary Pryor’s news conference on Friday, April 28, Joseph Lindstrom, the spokesperson for the Department of Housing, put out a news release, laying out potential investments by the state to create overnight locations for up to approximately 150 individuals each night, to compensate for the loss of the shelter beds at the Cranston Street Armory.

To quote from the news release, “The expanded shelter availability announced today [Friday, April 28] that is anticipated to open over the course of this transition period includes:

• Additional capacity in Providence operated by Crossroads RI.

• Additional capacity supported by Community Care Alliance in northern Rhode Island

• Expanded operations at Emmanuel House in Providence.

• Additional capacity for medical respite in Providence provided by the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness, West Bay Community Action Program, and the Episcopal Diocese in Providence.

The problem, of course, with the alleged details provided by the news release was that it lacked any specific details: How much money was to be invested at each location? Where would the money be coming from? How many new emergency shelter beds would be created? And, when would the proposed “additional capacity” be slated to come on line?

Early on Saturday morning, April 29, ConvergenceRI reached out to Lindstrom by email, asking these questions and more. ConvergenceRI then followed up with a phone call on Saturday afternoon, to inquire if any answers would be forthcoming by the time that the next edition was published.

Lindstrom replied that the answers – particularly around the amount of money to be invested in specific programs, would not be available until perhaps later in the week. Lindstrom said he was unable to comment on any specifics, given that they involved contractual matters. Lindstrom indicated that the information requested would probably be given on a piecemeal basis, depending on contractual outcomes.

Lindstrom, who admitted he was unfamiliar with ConvergenceRI, did promise that he would add the publication to the agency’s media advisory list in the future.

Translated, Secretary Pryor appeared to be holding his cards very, very close to his chest, sharing few details other than the promises that emergency shelter beds would be created.

The next shanda in Woonsocket?
At the very moment when Secretary Pryor and the McKee administration were busy scrambling to find emergency shelter and “medical respite” for Rhode Island’s most vulnerable residents, the machinations behind the state’s collaboration with the city of Woonsocket in evicting a community agency from a state-owned building and then purchasing the building were made public as part of an agenda item scheduled to be acted upon at the City Council’s May 1 meeting.

The stated intent of the city of Woonsocket to use $730,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds to purchase the property was: “…the Director of the Department of Public Works has expressed a future need to relocate certain DPW employees” and that the 181 Cumberland St. property “would best serve the needs of his department,” can only be labeled as bizarre, in ConvergenceRI’s opinion.

It may have been R.I. Department of Administration Director James Thorsen’s last day on the job, but it was on Friday, April 28, that Thorsen’s involvement with decisions around the forced sale of the property at 181 Cumberland St. in Woonsocket were finally publicly revealed.

Exhibit A in the documentation provided by the city of Woonsocket in its plans to move ahead under state law and purchase the property under its “right of first refusal” was a letter from Director Thorsen, dated April 6, 2023 in which he formally declared the R.I. Department of Administration had found that the property at 181 Cumberland St. in Woonsocket was “to be surplus to its needs [emphasis added].” [See links to documents below.]

Legislative leaders immersed with housing efforts said that they were shocked to learn the details about the transaction now underway, when the documents contained in the City Council agenda for the May 1 meeting were shared with them.

Translated, at a time when Secretary Pryor is desperately seeking shelter space to house and to care for vulnerable residents across Rhode Island, the city of Woonsocket, in collaboration with the state Department of Administration, facilitated the sale of a building in Woonsocket, with a full working kitchen that had been supplying hundreds of meals a week to community agencies and their clients, to serve the alleged future needs of the city’s Department of Public Works.

To quote WPRO’s hard-working reporter, Steve Klamkin, “Really?”

Editor's Note: The purchase of the property at 181 Cumberland St. in Woonsocket was approved by the City Council at its May 1 meeting, acording to observers who attended the meeting. But not before there was an alleged exchange between Garrett Mancieri, a member of the City Council, and the Mayor, according to an observer at the meeting. Mancieri reportedly said that he could not support the city buying a building [181 Cumberland St.] where the administration forced the former tenant out. When the Mayor demanded that that Mancieri tell her whom he heard that claim from, Mancieri allgedly replied: Gov. Dan McKee.

Further, on May 1, reporter Nancy Lavin with Rhode Island Current [and formerly with Providence Business News] filed a story about how the city may have violated its own rules in approving an emergency contract for $1.7 million to repair broken equipment critical to is regional sewage treatment palnt, without providing the necessary  and required documentation to buy it. [See link below to story.]

Attorney General Peter Neronha, are you paying attention?

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