Panel says ‘no’ to pallet housing

Posted 11/8/22

Members of the Safety Services and Licenses Committee approved (4-2) a pallet shelter resolution Thursday night calling for Gov. Dan McKee to abandon plans for placing pallet shelters at …

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Panel says ‘no’ to pallet housing


Members of the Safety Services and Licenses Committee approved (4-2) a pallet shelter resolution Thursday night calling for Gov. Dan McKee to abandon plans for placing pallet shelters at Cranston’s Pastore Center. The resolution, sponsored by Councilman Matthew Reilly and Councilwoman Nicole Renzulli, will go before the full council at the end of the month.

Meanwhile, the state administration hasn’t revealed a plan for providing shelter for the homeless this winter. Warwick Mayor Frank Picozzi said he was assured the state will not contract with Crossroads, as it did last year, for use of the NYLO Hotel. Picozzi said he was told the administration aims  to disburse the homeless population with the use of housing facilities in multiple communities. 

Pallet shelters are tiny, pop-up housing units with heat and electricity that are used for emergency housing. The state is looking to use these shelters for individuals experiencing homelessness this winter and has been scouting out potential locations throughout Rhode Island. One of the suggested areas is the Pastore Center which has become a debated topic within the city for the past three weeks.

At Thursday’s meeting, Chief of Staff Anthony Moretti said the Governor’s Office and Deputy Secretary of Commerce for Housing Josh Saal called Mayor Ken Hopkins in October to solicit input on how Cranston and its residents feel about the establishment of pallet shelters at the Pastore Complex. Concerns of overburdening public safety resources, the impact on the local community, the financial strain and unanswered questions about the shelters were among the reasons for not wanting the shelters.

“In speaking with the fire chief, I was actually a bit astounded that Cranston supports the Pastore Center in totality with probably the equivalent of one full rescue,” said Moretti. “That alone is probably a burden of over $1 million on the taxpayers of the City of Cranston.”

Cranston already houses many state facilities – including the Harrington House and state prison. Reilly said each year the state waits until the last minute to set up pallet shelters. He said last year, the state reached out to Cranston as well, but the city was able to dissuade the governor and individuals experiencing homelessness were housed at the NYLO Hotel in Warwick.

Moretti added that the issue of housing additional units was not the overall overriding concern, but rather the mayor believes the city is at a tipping point since it already houses the state prisons and state facilities. He said the burden goes beyond the Pastore Center and affects the local neighborhoods and businesses.

Moretti added that McKee appeared on WPRO with Steve Klamkin saying that Cranston is no longer a consideration for the pallet shelters.

Council President Chris Paplauskas said that while it seems plans have changed, plans may change after the election.

Through a public safety lens

Fire Chief James Warren provided council members with the number of runs the Fire Department took to Harrington Hall over the last five years. In 2018, there were 307 runs, in 2019 there were 253, in 2020 there were 209, in 2021 there were 230 runs and as of October 2022 there have been 238 runs. Warren said the department has a lot of overdoses throughout Garden City, Glenn Hills, Oak Lawn Avenue and at bus stops.

“I feel like we can handle it if we have to do it, but the rescue runs I believe will increase  – which is what we’re concerned about,” Warren said.

Warren added that the state does not reimburse the city for rescue runs; he said the department will try to bill the state, but Cranston’s Fire Department usually does not see any money.

From the police department’s end, Chief of Police Col. Michael Winquist said there is concern that public safety doesn't have a lot of information on the pallet shelters or the people who are going to be housed in them. He wanted to know the number of pallet shelters to be expected and if individuals would be monitored for having weapons, alcohol or drugs with them. Winquist noted that the pallet shelters would not have a bathroom or shower, so where would these individuals go to relieve themselves or clean up?

He said there is a portion of the homeless population that is addicted to drugs or alcohol and said the police department comes across these individuals on a daily basis.

“There are a lot of good people finding themselves living in tents in the woods across Cranston or in Harrington Hall,” said Winquist.

Harrington Hall has 112 beds, with Winquist saying that, on any given night, at least 30 sex offenders make that place their home. He said of the 30, 10 of those individuals are considered a level three sex offender (which is the highest level). People experiencing homelessness are allowed inside the facility at night but must leave in the morning. Winquist said many of the individuals take the bus to Kennedy Plaza in Providence while others are found panhandling and or involved in illegal activities.

Winquist said there are currently 17 individuals incarcerated at the ACI who are going to be registered sex offenders when they are released. He said when individuals are released from their incarceration, they go right to Harrington Hall.

“So that number of 30 could jump to 47 depending on the release dates that are coming up,” Winquist said.

Last year, the police department responded to 132 calls for service at the Pastore Complex – most of the response services going to Harrington Hall. As of October of this year, the department has completed 64 calls for service at Harrington Hall.

“A lot of calls we get that stem from Harrington Hall involve public drunkenness in the neighborhoods and aggressive panhandling,” Winquist said.

Winquist spoke with the Warwick Police Department about the department’s experience when people experiencing homelessness were housed at the NYLO Hotel last year. He said while a majority of the individuals were families and not a problem, there was a group that committed quite a few crimes. Winquist relayed that Warwick Police noted a significant increase in crime, car breaks, shoplifting, loitering and aggressive panhandling which took place at local businesses, playgrounds that was linked directly back to those staying at the NYLO.

“I would hope and implore if this pallet shelter comes through that the state police would come and have some type of presence at the location,” Winquist said.

Michael Neugent, one of the homeless who has pitched a tent in front of the State House, doesn’t see pallet housing or tiny houses as a solution.  While the pallets offer an improvement over tents, Neugent points out pallets  aren’t permanent housing.  He called not only for better temporary shelters but also for long term planning.  He has called on members of the homeless community to set up their tents at the State House to focus attention on the issue and as an act of “assembly” that they are legally guaranteed.

Residents approve

Of the 30 members of the public that showed up to talk about the resolution and the many others who joined the meeting via Zoom, 20 individuals offered public comment with roughly 10 residents speaking in favor of Reilly and Renzulli’s resolution. All spoke of safety concerns.

“How many times do my wife and I get a call from the police department saying ‘there’s a level three sex offender living in your neighborhood?’” said one Garden Hills Drive resident.

Frank Deingenis, who lives on Garden Hills Parkway, said at times when Harrington Hall lets out in the morning, it’s unsafe to go to Brayton Park.

“My wife and I won’t even walk through the park at night because they’re living in the woods, they’re living in the stairwell of the concession stand. I have young children and I get at least one to two calls every couple weeks about registered sex offenders at Harrington Hall,” said Deingenius.

He said at New London Avenue in the summertime, he has to roll up the car window because individuals are aggressively panhandling. He said other cities can step up and help by taking on the pallet shelters proposed by the state.

Resident Mary English had a similar comment as Deingenis.

“I feel like Cranston has beared a lot of the burden of the prisons and I feel like I’m almost being made to feel guilty if I'm not willing to house these people,” said English.

Cranston resident Tricia Gilmore informed the council that she worked with the Harrington Hall community years ago when the sex offender population was getting out of control.

“Having insight as I had for many years to this specific situation, I don’t have the luxury of having a fantasy land idea of what exists there. This is not about homelessness. This is about homeless sex offenders. This is about homeless criminals,” said Gilmore.

She mentioned that while services are available for individuals, many do not use them.

“If you really want to understand that shelter, you need to understand that families, women, children, they won’t use that shelter because it's not safe to be there,” Gilmore said.

Former councilman Micheal Favicchio of Belvedere Drive added that the issue is statewide and Rhode Island needs a comprehensive plan.

“I worry about having families on those grounds where you have 30 to 40 sex offenders on any given night,” said Favicchio.

Residents oppose

Community members also shared why they opposed the pallet shelter resolution. Many suggested workshopping the issue.

“In Rhode Island tonight, 425 people are experiencing homelessness,” said Jennifer Barrera, Chief Strategy Officer of the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness.

Barrera said Providence County (which comprises Central Falls, Cranston, East Providence, Pawtucket, Providence and Woonsocket) has 74 percent of all the people in Rhode Island who are experiencing homelessness. While Providence has the highest number of those experiencing homelessness, Cranston comes in second with 10 percent of Providence County’s homeless population. Barrera said this percentage represents 63 households.

Barrera said the number of individuals experiencing homelessness has quadrupled since Covid began. Cranston has an overrepresentation of single, individual adults and couples who are experiencing homelessness compared to other Rhode Island municipalities.

“There’s no direct correlation of the folks that we are counting that are experiencing homelessness in Cranston to the ACI. These are folks who are either from Cranston or have come to Cranston and are experiencing homelessness,” Barrera said, countering what the police department said earlier.

Cranston resident Rahul Vanjani, who works as a primary care and addiction medicine physician and has spent the past five years overseeing the state's transition clinic, also opposed the resolution.

“Every medically complex individual coming out of ACI comes to see me and a group of community health workers,” said Vanjani. “I probably take care of more people with histories of sex offenses than any other physician in the state.”

He also takes care of a large swath of the homeless population.

“My experience with working with people experiencing homelessness has been that they are some of the most special and kind people that I’ve ever interfaced with,” Vanjani said. “It’s really helped me break down some of the stereotypes that I had growing up about individuals experiencing homelessness.”

Vanjani added that these shelters like Harrington Hall are tough to live in and suggested council members approach this issue by thinking of what leads to a high-quality program. He suggested the city demand high case level management and certain services implemented if the pallet shelters were to be placed within the city.

“That’s the way we can guarantee the number of rescues called to the area will be decreased. The number of people successfully housed will be increased,” Vanjani said.

Cranston resident Kristina Brown focused on the difference between individuals experiencing homelessness and individuals who were deemed sex offenders.

“I find the language of the resolution conflating our neighbors who are dealing with homelessness right now with the sex offender population to be offense and inaccurate,” said Brown.

Council Divided

Following public comment, council members debated the resolution. Councilman John Donegan said within the City Charter, Cranston has the duty to uphold safety, health and wellbeing of the city and people who are unhoused fall under that category.

“Whether they’re living off the old railroad tracks behind Lincoln Avenue or under the bridge on Niantic or under Route 10, they're already here in Cranston,” said Donegan.

Donegan thought the language conflating homelessness, sex offenders and drug addicts was dangerous language to use given that its known that many individuals are unhoused because of mental illness or economic conditions.

“The economic reality is that many people are a paycheck away from falling into homelessness,” Donegan said.

Council President Chris Paplauskas followed the concerns of public safety response to the Pastore Complex.

“My heart bleeds for the homeless and we have to find the solution, but I do think pallet housing isn’t the answer,” said Paplauskas.

Councilwoman Lammis Vargas suggested a possible payment structure so the city is compensated for housing the pallet shelters. She added that she did not agree with the verbiage comparing all of our homeless community members to sex offenders.

“This has nothing to do with the homeless or homeless policy,” said Reilly. “I’m calling for the City of Cranston to stop enabling the State of Rhode Island and for the State of Rhode Island to come through with something that isn't short sighted, that isn’t last minute.”

He said if other municipalities did what Cranston already did, there would be this problem.

“I was a little surprised at some of what the administration had to say because some of the conversations the mayor and I have personally had – and also Director Moretti –  I think one of the quotes was ‘I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t go there,’ and was probably within 48 hours,” Reilly said.

He added that the time for conversations and workshops has passed.

“When all the other cities and towns get around to doing what we do, then call us and i will be the first one to help.”

Councilwoman Nicole Renzulli said the state is not doing its job; the state has a housing czar with committees and nonprofits below it that work with the population of individuals experiencing homelessness and inform the state on what they should be doing. Renzulli said in May, Providence College Professor Eric Hirsch mentioned to the governor that 500 pallet shelters should be put up at the Pastore Center.

She said in May if some sort of plan came to the city and engaged Cranston’s various organizations that help the homeless as well as the housing commission, mayor, City Council and safety services, then the city could have helped the state come up with a plan before the end of October and November.

“It’s not that no one wants to help the homeless. It’s that this is poor planning and now we have to pay for it,” said Renzulli.

She added that she wants wrap-around services for individuals experiencing homelessness.

The resolution will now go before the full City Council at their November meeting.

John Howell contributed to this story.

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