The State Senators of the Committee on Housing and Municipal Government met to hear testimony from homeless people and their advocates about the state’s emergency winter shelter and the move of the men’s shelter currently situated at Harrington Hall to the Gloria MacDonald building at the ACI.
Homeless people, advocates, service providers, and their supporters packed the room, with a number of people remaining standing throughout the roughly hour and a half long meeting where it was made clear that the state cannot continue on its present path.
With 88 beds, Harrington Hall is unable to meet demand and is often over capacity. Men looking to reserve a bed can do so if they agree to follow conditions laid out in a contract, about 40 have done so; another contract allows use of the 30 lockers available, all of which are currently reserved. Four showers are available.
When asked about the state of the bathrooms, which serve far more than 88 men each day, Sean Trott, a shift supervisor, said they are horrendous, but by shelter standards “we’re considered clean.” Trott described some shelter residents starting their days at 3:00 am to avoid waiting for the bathroom; “they are the hardest workers I know,” he said. When he ended his testimony, Trott received an ovation from the crowd for his full description of the conditions. Sen. John Tassoni, a Lincoln Democrat, said, “I wouldn’t even let my dog stay in that shelter.”
Sen. Tassoni and Sen. DeVall both spoke about being appalled by the conditions of Harrington Hall. Sen. DeVall expressed frustration that a year after viewing the shelter, conditions hadn’t improved and a solution had not yet been found. “The leadership needs to go over there and see what it’s like,” said Sen. Tassoni.
The senators also expressed surprise when a worker at Emmanuel House said that the shelter run by Crossroads Rhode Island on Broad St. in Providence maintained a policy of keeping half its beds empty, a revelation which was met by murmurs of knowing displeasure from the viewing crowd. The senators agreed to call a representative of Crossroads Rhode Island to the next meeting.
John Freitas, a member of the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project (RIHAP) who is himself homeless said that shelter was not the solution, “housing is the solution.” Mr. Freitas stepped away from the podium without fielding a question from the senators. Indeed, not a single currently homeless or recently homeless person who gave testimony was questioned by any of the senators. The senators were more willing to engage with advocates, whom they often asked pointed questions to.
Early on, Sen. Hanna Gallo (D – Cranston) entered the meeting and was invited to ask questions. Most pressing to the senator from Cranston were five sex offenders who currently reside at Harrington Hall. Citing walking distance to a library and a baseball field, Sen. Gallo opposed moving the shelter to the new location. Sen. Gallo received support from Sen. Pinga and Sen. Maher. Jean Johnson, Executive Director of the House of Hope, responded by noting that House of Hope registers the sex offenders as residing there. If any fail to return at night, the police are notified. Thus, the location of said offenders is known and watched from 7 pm at night to 5 am in the morning. No such protection exists for sex offenders not registered with the shelter. Sen. Tassoni said that this was the result of a few residents in Cranston getting their neighbors worked up over nothing, noting that 82 sex offenders currently reside in Cranston.
Sen. Crowley asked Ms. Johnson what happens to a typical resident in the morning. “They get on a bus and go to where we know people usually congregate, such as Providence,” replied Ms. Johnson.
“What’s to stop them from getting off at Pine St.?” said Sen. Crowley.
“Nothing,” said Ms. Johnson. She went on to note that in House of Hope’s time running Harrington Hall, sixteen sex offenders had found housing, while seven were returned to prison. However, only the one of those was due an incident of recidivism; the others were due to parole violations.
Jim Ryczek, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, gave testimony to the committee where he said that many of the issues with the sex offenders were problems that the House of Hope had taken on upon themselves, providing a service to the state that the Department of Corrections would otherwise have to fill. Sen. Maher acknowledged that the senators were aware of this lack in the Department of Corrections. Sen. Pinga also expressed a desire to separate the five sex offenders from the rest of the residents at Harrington Hall. Neither senator offered suggestions for how such a thing might be done. Mr. Ryczek, a resident of Cranston and father of two young children, noted the jarring experience of receiving a sex offender notice in the mail, but asked the senators to look beyond that to dealing with people who need assistance.
Sen. Pinga did note that all towns and cities in Rhode Island are required to have 10% of their housing stock be affordable housing, which would help in alleviating homelessness. Sen. Tassoni pointed said that only 40% to 50% of municipalities had so far met that goal.
John Joyce, co-director of RIHAP, delivered some of the last testimony. “It seems like year after year the conversation about homelessness ends when the winter shelters end,” said Mr. Joyce. He said that the state’s commitment to the homeless doesn’t end, and pointed out that Dr. Eric Hirsch, a Professor of Sociology at Providence College, had calculated it cost the state $8,000 more to keep someone in a shelter than in permanent supportive housing with wraparound services (Dr. Hirsch also gave testimony earlier in the meeting). “We can end homelessness in Rhode Island,” said Mr. Joyce.