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

With summer only seven weeks away, closure of Cranston Street Armory prompts ‘last minute scramble’ to coordinate with nonprofits

By: - May 2, 2023 4:29 pm

The Cranston Street Armory Warming Station in Providence will end operations by May 15. State officials have yet to come up with a shelter solution for the upcoming summer. (Photo by Keven G. Andrade/Rhode Island Housing)

PROVIDENCE — State officials and advocates for the unhoused are racing to find housing as the National Weather Service predicts a likely hotter than average summer.

The scramble gained urgency after Rhode Island Secretary of Housing Stefan Pryor announced plans to close the warming shelter at the Cranston Street Armory by May 15 at a hastily arranged press conference Friday.

“We’re in a little bit of a last minute scramble,” said Margaux Morriseau, deputy director of the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness. “We know that people are going to be turned away and summer time is just as dangerous as winter.”

Models from the National Weather Service in Norton, Massachusetts, predict a 50% to 60% likelihood of a warmer than normal summer in 2023, but the state has no comprehensive plan to address the challenges the season will bring. 

The armory shelter opened in December and housed between 150 and 200 people nightly. Pryor said the state would stop accepting new clients there Monday and hopes to reduce the armory numbers to 100 by May 8. 

“There’s work that needs to be done over these couple of weeks to get there,” Pryor said. 

Armory use was only temporary

There are no plans for the armory to become a permanent shelter. Pryor acknowledged residents in the surrounding neighborhood have complained of increased litter, drug use, and disturbances throughout its operation. 

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

An official with the Rhode Island Department of Housing said on background that officials are formulating a plan, though their immediate focus is on transitioning those currently sheltered on Cranston Street to other facilities.

“Many of the details will happen in the coming days,” the official said, adding that normally a press conference would not be called so early in development. “It’s really people converging at the beginning of a process.”

One aspect became clear Tuesday, when the State Properties Commission announced a decision to allow the Department of Housing, alongside Tri-Community Action Agency to prepare three cottages at the Zambrano Campus of the Eleanor Slater Hospital in Burrillville to house 10 families. 

The Housing Department said other agencies and nonprofits may be expanding services and increasing beds, including Crossroads Rhode Island and the Woonsocket-based Community Care Alliance. 

We know that people are going to be tuned away and summer time is just as dangerous as winter.

– Margaux Morriseau, deputy director of the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness.

The Episcopal Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness, and the West Bay Community Action Program said they would expand capacity for medical respite for substance abuse and behavioral healthcare.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence said it already planned to expand services at Emmanuel House, a men’s shelter it operates.

As part of our seasonal contract with the state, we have expanded capacity of up to 70 men through the end of June,” Michael Kieloch, director of communications for the diocese, said in an email. “We are also in the process of completing renovations to the building which would add an additional 35 beds for women.”

In addition, the state announced Friday the expansion of warming shelters at: OpenDoors RI, in Pawtucket; the Crossroads Rhode Island Couples Shelter, on Hartford Avenue in Providence; Community Care Alliance, in Woonsocket, and the WARM Center, in Westerly. 

According to the coalition, there were fewer than 950 available shelter beds in Rhode Island in March, not including warming shelters, and 292 unsheltered people as of April 19, an undercount.

Rhode Island’s most recent point-in-time count – the term for a census of the unhoused population conducted nationally by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and local partners – in January 2022 counted 1,151 people living in emergency shelters, 177 people in transitional housing, and 248 living out of their cars. 

Results of the January 25, 2023, point-in-time count will be released June 6.

Warmer summer than normal likely

Matthew Belk, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Norton, said temperatures trended up from last year based on data from degree days, a unit of measurement that measures the range between a comfortable temperature and those too cold or warm. 

The National Weather Service uses 65 degrees as the benchmark for warming degree days — when people need to heat their homes — and 85 degrees for cooling degree days — when people cool them.

Belk said heating degree days decreased by 580 from July 2022. Meanwhile, since March, Rhode Island experienced 11 cooling degree days.

“That’s eight cooling degree days since March,” Belk said, adding that included two calendar days of 90 plus degrees. “We are five degrees above normal.”

Most of the state’s unhoused population is concentrated in cities, where more asphalt and concrete absorb the sun’s radiation and fewer trees and open spaces mitigate what is known as the urban heat island effect. Belk said heat islands could see temperatures five to eight degrees higher than in greener zones. 

Morriseau said the unhoused are more exposed to heat stroke, heat exhaustion, sun burns, heat cramps, dehydration, and more during the summer.

“Any of the service providers and frontline providers know how terrible the heat can be on people who are unhoused,” she said. “Our state still lacks a plan to address homelessness.”


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Kevin G. Andrade
Kevin G. Andrade

Kevin G. Andrade previously covered education, housing and human services for Rhode Island Current.