Could three empty dormitories in Burrillville help solve the state’s emergency housing crisis?

State Properties Committee plans to move fast to negotiate deal with nonprofit to manage housing for up to 30 people

By: - May 2, 2023 4:30 pm

Three brick “cottages” on the campus of the Zambarano unit of Eleanor Slater Hospital are not being used. So the state hopes to repurpose them into a temporary shelter for unhoused families. (Photo by Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

Tucked away in the northwest corner of Rhode Island sit three brick dormitory buildings a short walk from the calm waters of Wallum Lake in Burrillville. They are unoccupied now, but in recent years, they housed teens in need of rehabilitation and families looking to isolate and quarantine themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor has other ideas for these state-owned “cottages” on the campus of the state’s psychiatric hospital, the Zambarano unit of Eleanor Slater Hospital.

“It could be a very favorable environment — a good environment for families,” Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor told a gaggle of reporters Tuesday morning outside a conference room at the Department of Administration headquarters.

R.I. struggles to find solution after Providence warming station closes May 15

Under a two-week deadline to find emergency housing in the state, Pryor said the Housing Department hopes to move up to 30 people from 10 families to the Burrillville cottages. His comments came after the State Properties Committee unanimously approved a request from his department to negotiate a deal with Tri-County Community Action Agency, a Johnston-based community care nonprofit, to house families in the cottages for “up to one year.” Any agreement with the agency would require approval from the committee.

“We’re aiming to complete negotiations within weeks rather than months,” Pryor said.

Committee Member Gregory Schultz, a representative from the Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office, said the plan was “a bit disjointed,” but understandable.

“In emergency situations — when people are homeless, especially in extreme conditions — you do what you have to do,” Schultz said.

It could be a very favorable environment — a good environment for families.

– Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor

The approval comes as the Cranston Street Armory, which houses up to 150 to 200 people on a given day, will close as a warming station and shelter on May 15. In the interim, Pryor said the Housing Department is “looking at a series of options across the state,” including adding more beds to existing homeless service providers and eyeing other open shelter spots.

“All of that is coming together,” he said.

Tri-County president and CEO Joseph R. DeSantis said while his nonprofit still needs to negotiate the terms, he is eager to assist the state in helping those 10 families.

“It’s a serious problem for all these families and we want to do our share,” he said. “Somebody has to do something, and that’s our charge.”

Already, DeSantis said Tri-County has identified someone to be the director of the shelter.

“That’s good because it’s the first thing you need to get,” he said.

Housing Secretary Steven Pryor (center) presents his plan to the State Properties Committee on Tuesday. (Photo by Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

Renovations needed

The Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities & Hospitals (BHDDH) which runs Eleanor Slater, supports the use of the cottages as a temporary shelter. The cottages were likely built after 1935 when, according to a history timeline on the agency’s website, funding was used for the construction of buildings at the State Sanitarium at Wallum Lake.

BHDDH spokesperson Randy Edgar said after it is used as a temporary shelter, the state-run hospital plans to use the cottages as Enhanced Mental Health Psychiatric Rehabilitative Residences, which serve adults who need 24-hour supervision and support but do not require hospital level of care.

“But that is at least a year away,” Edgar said.

Housing Department staff member Rachel Flaherty told the committee that the cottages are in need of “minor repair” along with ensuring they are up to code before they can open. 

“These cottages were recently used in the last few years,” she said. “They’re safe, strong buildings. We just need to do some general upkeep.”

There are also no kitchens in any of the cottages. Pryor told the committee that the Housing Department is currently collaborating with BHDDH to have kitchen staff prepare food for the families.

Ideally, Pryor said, one unit could be refurbished at a time in order to stagger openings.

“I think there is a possibility that the initial cottage, for example, could come online in the near term,” he said.

Once online, Pryor said the cottages would house up to 30 people. It is unclear what the cost of renovations and moving the families will cost, as Pryor said the Housing Department has only been “in preliminary dialogue” with Tri-County.

A more thorough timeline will be ready after an official renovation survey is conducted, Pryor said.

Does this rural location even make sense?

Though unanimously approved, committee members did question if unhoused residents would be able to access stores and other amenities in such a rural part of the state.

Pryor told the committee that some homeless families have cars they can use to get around town. For those who do not have access to transportation, the housing secretary said that Tri-County is looking at purchasing a van.

Should plans fall through, Pryor said families do not have to select Burillville as their temporary shelter and could instead look at other sites the Housing Department is exploring.

“We’re aiming to open smaller facilities in a variety of locations that would enable homeless individuals and families to make choices,” he said at the press conference.

Committee members also expressed concern over patients from the hospital wandering toward the cottages, along with potential access from residents to the nearby lake.

“[It’s] quite the attraction there,” Committee chair Marco Schiappa said.

In response, Pryor said that this is something that “would be determined in consultation with BHDDH.”


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Christopher Shea
Christopher Shea

Christopher Shea covers politics, the criminal justice system and transportation for the Rhode Island Current.