In the News - Homeless Advocate Say Homeless Crisis is Unprecedented

By LAUREN CLEM Valley Breeze Deputy Editor lauren@valleybreeze.com

WOONSOCKET – On any given day, 40 or more people pass through Safe Haven, a drop-in center for homeless individuals at 245 Main St. A majority of those people have issues with addiction or behavioral health, and many have had encounters with police who have no solutions for them, according to Benedict Lessing, CEO of Community Care Alliance.

“We created Safe Haven last year as a drop-in center because people did not have a place during the day where they could come in to get warm. And to come in and get other types of supplies,” he said.

Lessing and other staff at Community Care Alliance and the Rhode Island Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals told members of the Woonsocket City Council on Monday that homelessness in the state has reached unprecedented levels, with more people than ever before struggling to find a place to live. The discussion was part of a presentation by Community Care Alliance about the agency’s activities and funding sources within the city.

Michelle Taylor, vice president of social health services for CCA, has been with the organization for 24 years. Taylor said the agency is often unable to place individuals because of a shortage of shelter beds and other emergency housing.

“It’s kind of unprecedented what we’re seeing,” she said. “We’ll get a phone call from someone who’s in the hospital, he’s just had hernia surgery and he’s being discharged to the street. And there’s no room in a shelter. There’s no place to put him. And all we can say is here’s the phone number for the Coordinated Entry System, call them, but they have a wait list of over 1,000 people. He’s not getting in.”

Taylor said women with babies leaving domestic violence situations and families living in their cars with their children face similar situations.

“We’re talking about a population of individuals that previously we would not have seen be homeless. I mean, this is beyond the scope I think that any of us have seen, at least in my 24 years here at CCA,” she said.

The conversation came two weeks after several local homelessness advocates, including employees of CCA, criticized Woonsocket city officials for not spending their first round of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to address homelessness and other poverty-related concerns in the city. Instead, councilors voted to spend $13 million on a variety of infrastructure- and recreation-related initiatives, including road paving, a new ice skating rink, LED streetlights and upgrades at City Hall.

On Monday, Woonsocket Human Services Director Linda Plays said city representatives held a roundtable discussion about six weeks ago with members of local agencies about their activities within the city. Monday’s meeting, she said, was part of an effort to learn more about their specific needs.

Councilor James Cournoyer pointed out the city already provides funding to CCA in the form of community development block grants and other public funding. Lessing said the CDBG funds started around 2018, prior to which the agency had received little to no funding from the city in almost two decades.

In 2020, the city also awarded the agency an Emergency Solutions Grant of $809,000, according to Lessing. The grant, sourced through federal funds, has so far been used to offer emergency motel vouchers to 80 individuals, provide one-time rental assistance to 17 families, and help another 15 families with longer-term rental assistance.

Lessing said the agency’s immediate concern is the lack of shelter options with winter approaching. While Woonsocket already hosts several emergency housing facilities—including a family shelter operated by CCA, a seasonal men’s shelter at Harvest Community Church and housing for victims of domestic violence operated by Sojourner House—he and Taylor said there continues to be a shortage. The agency is currently working with a local church to create additional shelter space during the winter, he said.

“We had two people die last year from exposure locally,” he said. “Our immediate focus, and we’re working with the state on this, is to try to bring other resources into the community so that we can basically create some more shelter options.”

In addition to housing, CCA offers a wide range of social support services including behavioral health counseling, addiction treatment and referrals to community healthcare. Taylor said individuals who are successful are often those who are able to find stable housing and create a healthy environment prior to accessing other services.

Prior to coming to City Hall on Monday, Lessing told councilors he and Taylor were at the Safe Haven drop-in center, where a young, homeless woman had snuck back into the building after closing hours earlier in the day. Unbeknownst to staff, he said, the woman had gone into the bathroom and overdosed. Staff members were asked to return to the building to identify the body.

“You might say it’s not homelessness that killed her,” he told The Breeze following the meeting. “But what we know is that again, when we’re able to shelter people, we’re more likely than not to get them the treatment that they need. This is a very sad situation.”

Councilors on Monday questioned Lessing and Taylor about the hometowns of the people they serve, pointing out Woonsocket provides a disproportionate amount of social services compared with other communities in the state. According to Taylor, about 95 percent of the homeless individuals they serve are from Woonsocket. Even when there are shelter opportunities in other communities, she said, clients sometimes refuse placement, preferring to stay where their services and contacts are located.

“We would have opportunities to move people to a Providence shelter, and they would refuse,” she said. “They would rather stay outside than move out of the city.”

Lessing told The Breeze the agency did not attend Monday’s meeting with the goal of securing more city funds but are open to funding wherever they can get it. CCA is currently working with the state to secure funding to open a youth shelter and other resources, he said.

Gendron said city officials have not committed to providing any additional funds to CCA or other agencies beyond the grants already awarded. Because CCA is the largest recipient of local funding, he said, they wanted to meet with the agency and hear about how they’ve used the funds received so far.

“I don’t know that I would read into it any more than that,” he said. “We’ll probably be talking to other recipients to find out what kind of other accomplishments they’ve done with their revenues that they’ve received.”

Gendron said he believes ARPA funds should be used in a way that has a long-lasting effect on the city and not to plug budgetary holes or provide short-term benefits.






Contact Information

PO Box 1700 | Woonsocket, RI | 02895 | Directions
401.235.7000 Main Agency | 401.235.7120 Emergency

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