Peace of Mind Column
Newport Daily News
Jan. 6-7, 2023
Help Bring the Homeless Out of the Cold
Jamie Lehane and Mary Alexandre
Don't let this past week's stretch of sometimes balmy weather fool you. Although 2023 came in like a lamb, there are still months ahead for winter to go out like a lion. For the estimated 25 individuals and additional families each night who are homeless on the streets of Newport County, this could be deadly - unless something changes.
This winter there are no available emergency shelter beds or even an extreme weather warming center for people to get out of the cold. The McKinney Cooperative Shelter has closed admissions as they are undergoing a major renovation of their building. Lucy's Hearth's supportive housing for homeless families is full. The Seaman's Institute closed its emergency cold weather overnight shelter two years ago. You may recall during the last few COVID-era winters we at Newport Mental Health helped oversee the use of motels as emergency shelters. That option is no longer available this winter but we are not giving up. The only resource still available is the Newport Housing Hotline, which has a very modest amount of funds to pay for short-term emergency motel rooms.
On Christmas Day, the Newport Housing Authority was able to open up space at the Park Holm complex, with volunteer staff ready to help. But there is no consistent place this winter for the unsheltered in our community to stay safe and warm when it's inclement, snowing or freezing cold.
Many of the unsheltered people in our community have complex, longstanding medical, mental health, alcohol and drug needs. We know how to treat them, but none of that will help if these folks are outside, developing frostbite and hypothermia, experiencing cellulitis, seizures or diabetic reactions. We must do better as a community, and we can.
Fortunately, there are several community agencies and individuals stepping up to fill the gap. Our newly elected Newport Mayor Xay Khamsyvoravong has taken on a leadership role to help coordinate an emergency response by convening weekly planning meetings to establish a Warming Center.
A meeting on Dec. 22 hosted by the Salvation Army drew reps from the county's government, schools, public safety offices and at least 10 nonprofits who committed to convene an emergency weather planning group who will work to develop options for homeless individuals and families to take a break from the elements and be safe in extreme weather.
'We at The Salvation Army are concerned about the lack of a Warming Center for the homeless in Newport County,' said Carol Duperree, Major/Assistant Divisional Secretary for RI State Command, The Salvation Army. 'We are in the learning and discussion phase in regard to how our local Salvation Army can better serve this population during frigid weather.'
The Newport Partnership for Families has coordinated warming center volunteers, the Housing Hotline agreed to manage the family hotel placements and Newport Mental Health has taken the lead on coordinating the emergency weather planning group, providing onsite support for housing, engaging folks in behavioral health and health care and has volunteered to write the grants to secure whatever funds are available. We brainstormed other ideas and opportunities, and will find a solution - but we're asking for your help.
Do you know - or have - a site that would be suitable as a temporary emergency shelter or warming center to bring people in from the extreme cold. A church hall? A vacant school or club gymnasium or meeting space? We know there are unused spaces out there. We have volunteers ready to staff and supervise a nighttime warming center while we write a grant for state emergency funds to hire staff. Newport has been identified by the Governor's Unsheltered Solutions Task Force as one of four priority cities in Rhode Island that need funds to address this crisis. We need a consistent location that can be used throughout the winter so that we can apply for these funds and so people know where to go. It makes a difference; we know we saved at least five lives last year by offering a safe, steady space from winter's fiercest weather.
Time is of the essence, as the worst months of cold and winter weather are upon us. If you have or know of a site that may work, call Dayna Gladstein, Newport Mental Health's executive vice president, at 401-846-1213, ext. 1112. If you'd like to help in another way, please consider donating to the Newport Housing Hotline by following https://www.newportmentalhealth.org/housing/ on our Newport Mental Health website. Donations made through this page are designated to go directly to Newport Housing Hotline. This is especially important as even when we locate a warming center these funds will place families with children in motel rooms. A warming center is not a good place for children at night. A number of families are sleeping in cars in our communities as it is the only safe place they have at night. Yes, this is happening right here in Newport County. Please help.
Jamie Lehane is president and CEO of Newport Mental Health in Middletown. Peace of Mind, which is co-written with Mary Alexandre, runs in The Daily News and online at newportri.com.