Delivery of Care/Opinion

A fate accomplished?

What happens when the state ignores its obligations to repair state-owned buildings?

Photo by Richard Asinof, File Photo from 2020 story

Karen Rathbun, vice president of administrative services at Community Care Alliance in Woonsocket, points to a hole in the wall with insulation pouring out, caused by water damage from a leak in the roof at the state-owned building. The leak had been identified in 2017 but was never repaired by the R.I. Department of Administration, leading to unhealthy conditions, including black mold, forcing the agency to move to temporary offices.

By Benedict Lessing Jr.
Posted 2/9/23
The decision by the state to evict community agencies from state-owned buildings that were neglected by the state is a sign that the McKee administration and the General Assembly leadership may have lost its moral compass.
At a time when the state is overwhelmed by demands of homelessness by Rhode Island’s most vulnerable residents, why is the McKee administration seeking to punish community agencies providing support services? Which policy makers and legislative leaders will have the gumption and the courage to call out the McKee administration for its wrong-headed policy decisions? Would the Rhode Island Foundation be willing to loan money to the community agencies to finance the repairs and purchase of the MAP and CCA buildings, similar to its intervention with the Superman building in Providence?
On Tuesday, Feb. 7, Gov. Dan McKee and Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor staged a media availability at one of the affordable housing projects built by ONE Neighborhood Builders, which opened in July of 2022. There appeared to be no actual news attached to the event. Rather, it was all about the optics. One news reporter, struggling to come up with the news hook for what occurred, asked ConvergenceRI: What was that about?
ConvergenceRI replied: It was to drive home the message, 'The Governor cares,' in contrast to the aftermath of the terrible images from the weekend, when the warming shelter at the Cranston Street Armory lost heat.
If the Governor and Secretary Pryor wanted to change the narrative, in ConvegenceRI's opinion, they should consider halting the evictions of MAP and CCA, and find emergency funds to repair the state-owned buildings.
Podcaster Bill Bartholomew has positioned himself to be a champion when it comes to the current housing crisis. He has proposed trying to get everyone in a room to hammer out a solution. The problem with his idea is hiding in plain sight: the people who are consistently left out in the cold, literally and figuratively, of the policy discussions.
Who’s missing from the conversation envisioned by Batholomew? Folks like CODAC’s Linda Hurley, RICARES’s Ian Knowles, and RI Recovery Workplace’s Jonathan Goyer, who has been a driving figure in creating recovery housing in the state, all of whom can talk about how the housing crisis affects those with substance use disorders.
Also, Dr. Kalina Brabeck, Dr. Jayashree Nimmagadda, interim dean of the School of Social Work at Rhode Island College, and Lisa Peterson, chief operating officer at VICTA, who can talk about the ways that state policies have harmed minority and immigrant populations.
Also, Cheryl Silva, the mother of a domestic violence murder victim, R.I. Deputy Attorney General Adi Goldstein, and Diana Garlington from United Way of Rhode Island.
The state policymakers and bureaucrats need to take the time to listen to the voices of the people who are most affected by the state’s housing policies.

WOONSOCKET – It is a fait accompli, nonetheless, the recent Convergence RI story “BHDDH on schedule with its evictions of MAP, CCA” was like a slap across the face. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story.]

For more than two years, the Raimondo and then the McKee administration have effectively ignored the state’s obligation to maintain state-owned behavioral health properties, allowing them to fall into disrepair and then effectively auctioning them off to the highest bidder. It’s a done deal, no longer a problem that BHDDH or the Department of Administration has to deal with.

There are other behavioral health properties across the state where this scenario will likely be repeated. Like many things involving human services in Rhode Island, there are multiple prisms through which the situation can be viewed.

One, obviously, is the financial resources required to maintain these sites and whether or not the resources 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.

Finally, the reality that there are actual human beings affected by these decisions. These are typically the state’s most vulnerable citizens, often suffering with serious mental illness and addiction, and those who are “unhoused.”

Once upon a time, 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 something of a point of pride. We now see the evidence of this cultural erosion in our state 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 percent of their income goes to housing expenses.

What is tragic about the CCA site in Woonsocket at present is that the city is struggling with homeless encampments in various nooks and crannies. Many of the people in these situations are trying to survive being unhoused, but they are also experiencing trauma, serious mental illness, addiction and chronic health care concerns. Why on earth are sites that could bring safety and comfort and treatment to these individuals being auctioned off?

Following state law?
I understand the bureaucratic response: “We are following state law.” However, is it not possible for the General Assembly and the McKee Administration to work together to change the law? Is it not possible for the Administration to use its considerable ARPA funds in addition to record surpluses to address a humanitarian crisis that is literally taking lives? Do vulnerable people matter? Does government work any longer?

Where MAP is concerned, how many organizations such as this one are as deeply committed to serving the behavioral health needs of people of color in Rhode Island? In light of what has occurred since George Floyd’s death and everything that has transpired leading up to Tyre Nichol’s death, the state should be looking for solutions to keep MAP’s infrastructure intact. Do equity and inclusion really matter?

Every day, community-based human service providers are working in the trenches to save lives, keep families together and often battle impossible odds.

During the pandemic, there was little praise for social workers, counselors, case managers, peer specialists, residential workers, Early Intervention coordinators, and the myriad of other health care personnel working in the community; yet they continued to provide services.

Taking away critical infrastructure that support nonprofit organizations and, more importantly, the populations they serve, gives us pause as to whether our government truly represents all Rhode Islanders.

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus pushed a boulder up a hill everyday, only to have it roll down and do it again. That is what it is like to work in this environment.

Benedict F. Lessing, Jr. MSW, is the president and CEO of the Community Care Alliance.

Editor's Note: In a surprising move, the McKee administration rehired the former Housing Secretary Josh Saal as a consultant, a month after he was forced to resign.


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