Letter - Agency turns its back on RI’s most vulnerable
My Turn by Benedict F. Lessing, Jr., President/CEO, Community Care Alliance
Published on February 19, 2023 in the Providence Journal
It is a fait accompli. Nonetheless, the recent stories regarding "BHDDH on schedule with its evictions of MAP, CCA" were a final slap in the face to people with serious mental illness and addiction concerns.
For over two years, the Raimondo and then the McKee administrations have effectively ignored the obligation to maintain state-owned behavioral health properties, allowing them to fall into disrepair and then effectively auctioning them off to the highest bidder. Selling the buildings means there is no longer a problem that the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities & Hospitals or the Department of Administration have to deal with.
There are other behavioral health properties across the state where this scenario will likely be repeated. There are multiple prisms through which this situation can be viewed. One is the financial resources required to maintain these sites and whether or not they are sufficient. Another is the bureaucracy in terms of leadership, decision making and simply getting things done. Then there is the politics, the seen and unseen agendas. What’s often ignored is there are human beings affected by these decisions, typically the state’s most vulnerable citizens, those suffering with serious mental illness and/or addiction and those who are unhoused.
There was a time in which the State of Rhode Island took the needs of its vulnerable citizens much more seriously, with a behavioral health and social safety net that was a point of pride. We now see the evidence of this cultural erosion over the past 20 years: lack of access to behavioral health services, homeless encampments and the daily reality that families are on the brink of eviction because well over 50% of their income goes to housing expenses.
What is tragic about the loss of the Community Care Alliance site in Woonsocket is that the city is struggling with homeless encampments. Most people trying to survive being unhoused are also experiencing trauma, serious mental illness and addiction. Why are sites that could bring safety and comfort and much-needed treatment being auctioned off? The bureaucratic response is 'we are following state law.'
Is it not possible for the General Assembly and the administration to work together to change the law? Is it not possible for the administration to use its considerable reserve of pandemic relief funds and record surpluses and opioid-settlement funds to address a humanitarian crisis that is literally taking lives?
Where MAP Behavioral Health Services in Providence is concerned, how many such organizations are as deeply committed to serving the needs of people of color in Rhode Island? In light of what has occurred since George Floyd’s death and up to Tyre Nichols’ death, the state should be looking for solutions to keep MAP’s infrastructure intact. Does equity and inclusion in behavioral health care matter in Rhode Island?
Valuable infrastructure that has served vulnerable populations is simply being removed without consideration for the human consequences. These are not business transactions. The people and communities that depend on these facilities are being abandoned. Until there is greater acknowledgement of their needs, it is likely that we will continue to see these types of needlessly callous actions.
Benedict F. Lessing Jr. is president and CEO of Community Care Alliance.