On Friday, November 18, Chris Raia, a spokesperson for Housing Secretary Josh Saal and the Rhode Island Office of Housing and Community Development sent a statement to RINewsToday alleging that all of the people living in tents in front of the State House have “declined opportunities to move to alternative shelter resources.”
On Friday, Uprise spoke to eight people living at the State House and all eight confirmed that Raia’s statement is not true. Michael Neugent was the first person to set up a tent there this August; in the 16 weeks he’s lived at the State House, he has not been offered any “alternative shelter resources,” nor is aware of anyone who has been.
In a call with Uprise on Saturday, Saal said that, “The statement that we provided Nancy [Thomas, from RINewsToday] with was, at a minimum, inartfully phrased, to put it lightly, and does not reflect the situation that’s very real and very case-by-case with anyone who is camping out.” Following this call, the statement is now in the process of being revised.
“It’s much more complex than ‘accepted’ or ‘declined,’ and I don’t think that [ it] was accurate to say they have ‘declined,’” Saal added. “The situation is that we contract street outreach workers, and that’s mostly House of Hope and Crossroads who have been going there three times a week or so, at a minimum. Some people engage [with outreach workers], some people don’t.”
However, no one living at the State House has been offered an actual shelter bed through these outreach efforts, largely due to a complete lack of available shelter. When outreach workers meet people interested in a shelter bed, they contact the Coordinated Entry System (CES) – the program that oversees nearly all of the shelter beds in the state – on a person’s behalf. When CES is contacted and there are no suitable beds available, people are added to the waiting list. As of last week, 392 households living outside were on the CES waitlist (of an estimated 500+ people living outside). In total (a count that includes people living in “doubled-up” situations, people facing evictions, and others without stable housing) there were 1,101 individual people on the waitlist. There are currently less than 850 shelter beds in the entire state.
“Only thing I’ve been told [from the outreach teams] was to call CES, but everytime I call CES they don’t have a bed, or if there’s a bed it’s out of my way and they don’t help us get transportation back to Providence,” said John Collins, who has been living outside the State House for about a month with his partner.
Neugent added that, “[House of Hope outreach workers] are the ones that actually help the people, and they keep running into dead ends because the government doesn’t want to spend the money that they should be spending on us.”
Raia’s statement, published by RINewsToday, reads: “…outreach workers regularly meet with individuals encamped at the State House to make them aware of support services and shelter options and to facilitate their movement to available beds. Anyone who is continuing to encamp at this location has declined opportunities to move to alternative shelter resources.”
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In a statement made to Uprise, House of Hope Executive Director Laura Jaworski said that: “The press statement is correct in saying that we – along with outreach workers from several other organizations – have been in regular contact with those staying at the state house. However, contrary to what was stated [by Raia], nobody has declined appropriate shelter. In fact, every day we talk with numerous people who are desperate for shelter and unable to access it. This statement is a blatant attempt to shift blame from the state to the people most harmed by the government’s continued refusal to address the crisis of rapidly increasing unsheltered homelessness.”
There are currently at least 21 tents set up at the State House, housing well over 20 people. The low on Friday night was 27 degrees.
“We want a place where we feel safe and secure, where we can fall asleep at night and stay warm,” said Bella Salvatore*. Salvatore has been staying at the State House since September 1st with her partner, Stefan.
The Salvatores agreed that no one has offered them “alternative shelter resources” while they’ve been at the State House. Prior to September, they had been living in an apartment partially funded by a rapid rehousing program at Crossroads. The funding ended in August, and they were subsequently evicted from the apartment. Crossroads provided no support in finding a new apartment or temporary shelter for the Salvatores after the eviction. “It comes down to the point of not knowing where to go or who to turn to,” Stefan said. He tried CES and the Providence Rescue Mission, but was unable to find a place to stay. “What we need is a safer place,” he added.
The State House isn’t that. “We’ve been through six tents already, dealing with cracked poles, the wind snapping the straps, someone cutting the straps. And we’ve been cold every night, and hungry, and there have been threats,” he said. “The threats are, you know, ‘I’m gonna come back and kill you,’” Stefan said. This threat in particular, he added, was directed at one woman staying in a tent separated from the others.
“It’s not really safer here, because they [the Capitol Police] do nothing,” said Fernando Landim, who has stayed at the State House for about a month. “Somebody went and slashed my tent – and I don’t bother nobody – and nobody did anything.”
“They’re [the Capitol Police] harassing us more than anything,” said Neugent. He pointed out that the Capitol Police watch the security cameras 24 hours a day, but that when Landim’s tent was ripped there was no help or response.
The Salvatores agreed that the Capitol Police are more of a hazard than a source of security. “They’re always harassing people and saying we gotta be out December 1st,” Bella said. “If not, they’re gonna arrest us. But where are we supposed to go?”
Duane Clinker, the pastor at Mathewson Street United Methodist Church, highlighted how statements like Raia’s incite public frustration and violence against people living outside.
“One problem with the statement [from Raia] is that in some right wing media, there’s a national campaign to demonize the unhoused,” said Clinker. “I’ve heard national media quoting right wing sources, saying that ‘Everyone in a tent is there because they want to do drugs or because they’re dealing drugs, otherwise they would be in shelters, which are widely available.’ But in most areas, including Rhode Island, adequate shelter is not available to all.”
Additionally, while the RINewsToday article states that DCAMM (Rhode Island Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance) regularly empties trash cans at the State House, Pinkham and Britto stated that the people living there have been responsible for nearly all of the sanitation work that DCAMM claims to have done. Before the garbage bins were permanently removed last week, Pinkham said that she and several other people would regularly drag garbage bins to and from the train station to be emptied and refilled. Now that the garbage bins are gone, there’s nowhere to dispose of their trash.
Brianna Pinkham, who has lived at the State House for about three months now, and Antonio Britto, who has lived there for a little over two weeks, confirmed that not only has there been no offer of “alternative shelter resources,” but that it’s rare for anyone other than a caseworker to come by and check in on them.
In another statement made to Uprise, Jaworski added that, “When people ask what they should do when they see someone who might be experiencing homelessness, we encourage them to make eye contact and say hi – to acknowledge that person’s humanity. I think the more community members treat our unhoused neighbors with warmth and welcome, the more we can collectively counter the false narrative that these folks are unworthy, dangerous, or “other.” As people in positions of power, it’s critical that our elected and appointed officials model this behavior for their constituencies.”
Outside of the rapidly deployable shelter protesters constructed in front of the State House on October 31st, RIHAP (Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project) member Eric Hirsch said that, “The governor himself has said he will make sure that anyone who wants a shelter bed will have one by Thanksgiving will.”
When asked about this Thanksgiving promise, Saal said that, “We’re continuing to work on that at full speed and work specifically with the providers to get beds online, which can be challenging sometimes because some of these places that we have funded require repairs. So we’re trying to do our best to get as many beds online as fast as possible.”
On Friday, standing by his tent outside the State House as a biting wind passed by, Neugent told Uprise that, “Permanent housing is the only solution. If you’re willing to settle for less, you’ll never get what you deserve.” Landim, standing beside him, added, “Governor – please stop lying. Help the homeless, we’re humans.”
*For privacy purposes, the Salvatores have chosen to use these pseudonyms.