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Sunday, December 18, 2022

RI Housing Secretary Saal letter fails to grasp the reality of homeless encampments

McKee administration doesn't get it

By  Steve Ahlquist, UpRiseRI

As reported by Bill Bartholowmew, Rhode Island Secretary of Housing Josh Saal sent a 👈letter to the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness (Coalition) requesting “real time” information about the those experiencing homelessness in the state. Secretary Saal wrote that the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) “should be a source of powerful information” and makes what amounts to be three asks:

1.     All records of street outreach engagement should be documented in HMIS promptly and shared with the Secretary of Housing’s office on a regular basis;

2.     The Secretary should be provided with the location of the 80 encampments known to the Coalition; and,

3.     The “waiting list” as of December 14, 2022 of all those who are waiting for a shelter bed should be handed over by the Coalition.

Secretary Saal indicated that he wants these asks to answered by 4pm on Monday, December 19.

Uprise RI spoke to Jennifer Barrera, Chief Strategy Officer at the Coalition about the letter, but first some background about the waiting list…

What Secretary Saal seems to be referring to here is the list generated by the Coordinated Entry System (CES). The CES system was funded by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and providers that receive HUD funding to perform services are required to utilize CES. 

The state’s Continuum of Care regulations require that CES is in place and used. Outreach workers and providers believe that CES is the best way to distribute the very limited shelter bed resources in a fair and equitable way. More about CES is explained in the interview with Jennifer Barrera below.

Uprise RI: Can you tell me about Secretary Saal’s letter and the Coalition’s response?

Jennifer Barrera: In the fall of 2022, the Coalition worked with our statewide street outreach providers to conduct an analysis of all the encampments throughout the state. We wanted to understand where they were located, what cities and towns and regions, and how many people were in those encampments. We conducted that analysis, put it together, and distributed it in September to the Governor’s team and Secretary Saal. They received it in the Unsheltered Crisis Plan that we wrote for the state on how to address the current unsheltered crisis at that time.

From the Unsheltered Crisis Plan

Jennifer Barrera: Recently we’ve been asked to provide the location data and we told them we don’t have it. That’s the way that we protect our client’s privacy and security – particularly the folks that are unsheltered. If we have a list somewhere in our database of the location of every encampment – street address-wise – it is a risk. Our clients are at risk of physical harm; they’re at risk for their encampment to be vacated by a request that they move; they’re at risk of their encampments being destroyed, damaged, or items being stolen.

The street outreach providers maintain their own individual records, or knowledge of locations and they don’t share it with anyone because it’s just like you or I: You wouldn’t want your street address being blasted out to everyone in the State of Rhode Island if you were at risk. So we’ve told the state that we don’t have the data.

We have explained at length why we don’t have location data for the encampments. We’ve explained how we validated the encampment data at the point in which we collected it. We have another count, not of encampments but of people, coming up in January with our annual HUD mandated Point in Time count. That’s scheduled to happen, we believe it’ll be January 25th, but that’s not a hundred percent confirmed.

We received Secretary Saal’s letter today kind of out of the blue. We’ve been having ongoing conversations around data and street outreach and encampments.