People in need of social services are being turn away from the Woonsocket branch of the RI Department of Human Services (DHS) as the offices are in the midst of a downsizing and relocation.
On Tuesday some clients went to the DHS offices in Woonsocket and were told that they could not access the services they needed. They were referred to the Pawtucket offices, requiring a four hour bus ride, two hours each way. DHS employees in Woonsocket said their branch right now can only deliver “limited services.” I was told that all questions regarding the move and reduced services needed to be referred to DHS director Melba Depeña Affigne.
The reason for the change in service seems to be related to 70 layoffs at DHS that, according to a news release, is the result of a new software system coming in September.
“Moving from a software system designed more than 30 years ago to a modern, digital system requires different staffing needs,” said Depeña Affigne in a news release from the Department of Administration sent today. There will be a 3pm press conference explaining the layoffs in detail.
“The new eligibility and enrollment software system will make it easier and more convenient for Rhode Islanders to access those vital services,” Depeña Affigne said in the press release.
DHS provides vital community and family assistance by way of food and cash assistance, child care assistance and Medicaid. DHS manages SNAP benefits, Rhode Island Works (RIW), Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP), LTSS, General Public Assistance (GPA) and provides access to various energy assistance programs like HEAP, WAP and HSR.
The clients DHS serve are among the most vulnerable in the state, who often have difficulty with transportation and access to the internet. Closing offices, downsizing staff and limiting services, even if only for a month, could have catastrophic effects on families.
In a letter to SNAP Advisory Committee members, SNAP Administrator Iwona Ramian wrote that the lease for the current offices expires on August 31, and the effective date for the new offices is September 1, with transition between offices beginning Monday, August 22. Notification of the move was mailed to clients on Monday, meaning many people did not know about the gap in services.
Though Ramian in her letter says that “no gap in services is anticipated” the DHS website says, “The Woonsocket office is providing limited services” and refers clients to other locations.
Further calling Woonsocket DHS services into question is Ramian’s assertion that staffing levels at the Woonsocket office will be reduced from 36 to 14. The 22 employees who will no longer be in Woonsocket are being relocated to Providence.
A drop to 14 staff members is a big reduction. The implementation of a new on-line system for determining eligibility and needs was supposed to be in place before the change in location and reduction in staff, but the new system is experiencing delays.
Ramian notes that “the [new] office space will be shared with a comprehensive multi-service, non-profit, health and human services agency, giving customers a one-stop service location. The office telephone and facsimile numbers will stay the same. She’s referring to Community Care Alliance, a multi-service not-for-profit health and human services provider consisting of the original community mental health center serving the 6-town region, a school, the Woonsocket Family Shelter, the Northern RI Family Visitation Center (for DCYF-involved families), a youth success program, day treatment, partial hospital and acute stabilization for substance use and co-occurring behavioral health disorders and more.
Calls to the DHS offices have not been returned.