Innovation Ecosystem/Opinion

The not-so-quiet desperation when the dominant news narratives collapse

Two surprising big news dumps, which occurred late on Friday afternoon, offered a glimpse into the acts of desperation when dominant narratives take a plunge, undermining the political status quo

Image courtesy of Dylan Giles Twitter account

A sign marking the intersection on North Main Street in Providence where a pedestrian was killed, a day before Judge Richard Licht was struck and injured while attempting to cross Smith Street across from the State House.

Photo by Steve Ahlquist, UpriseRI, published with permission

RI Coalition to End Homelessness Executive Director Caitlin Frumerie, left, and Deputy Director Margaux Morisseau, testifying on Tuesday, Feb. 14, at a meeting of the Rhode Island House Study Commission on the Low and Moderate Income Housing Act.

Image courtesy of R.I. Coalition to End Homelessness

A slide presented on Tuesday, Feb. 14, by the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness, detailing the gaps between emergency response supply vs. demand for un-sheltered families in Rhode Island seeking shelter.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 2/20/23
Two late Friday afternoon news dumps, one by the Senate President, the other by the Rhode Island Foundation, raise questions about what happens when the dominant narrative is upended.
What happens when the dominant narrative flips when it comes to pedestrian safety and housing? Why was the Boston Consulting Group hired to do work outside the accountability of state government? What is the status of the plans for the re-procurement of the Managed Medicaid Organization contracts, which has apparently been pushed out by another two years to July of 2025? What is the current consulting contract with Duffy and Shanley – how much are they being paid and what is the length of the contract? What is the story behind the new emergency rules being sought by R.I. BHDDH for group homes? Is the U.S. Attorney currently pursuing any investigations into the delivery of human services in Rhode Island?
The crisis with staffing at Rhode Island’s nursing homes – and the potential fines the state could impose because of failure to meet the legal requirements – is yet one more example of the problems created by the failure to raise the Medicaid rates for reimbursement. The potential logjam created by the inability of nursing homes to accept new patients, giving the staffing mandates, and the difficulties that hospitals have in being able to move patients from inpatient settings to nursing homes, is an ongoing example of the state's ongoing problems in managing the well being of its aging population.
Take, for instance, the hypothetical case of a severely injured patient who, when walking as a pedestrian, was struck by a car. The likelihood is that such a hypothetical patient would leave the hospital and be sent to a nursing home for a period of up to three weeks for rehabilitation and physical therapy, before being able to return home. Once home, the likelihood is that the hypothetical patient would need to have at-home nursing supports, including access to remote telehealth check ups to monitor things such as blood pressure. In addition, such a hypothetical patient may need to have mental health counseling to deal with stresses related to such an accident, as well as occupational therapy to make the transition back to the workplace.
The quality of the health services will often depend on the quality of the health insurance plans such a patient has.
With the continued fallout from the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment and toxic chemical spill, I wonder if it would be possible to invite Dr. Rebecca Altman, Ph.D., and Kerri Arsenault, to have a conversation about how to address the problems of plastic manufacturing in Rhode Island, to e joined by R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha, as a way to strengthen the public health safeguards against possible threats from toxins in our air, waterways, and food. As Ken Silver once penned in a song, “If your kids eat it, drink it, and breathe it, it’s no company trade secret.”

PROVIDENCE – Two big news dumps occurred late on Friday afternoon, Feb. 17. The first, from Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, called for the resignation of Scott Avedisian, the CEO of the R.I. Public Transit Authority, promising to sponsor legislation to transfer RIPTA to be under the authority of the R.I. Department of Transportation.

“A quality, well-functioning public transit system is vital to the people of our state and our economy,” Ruggerio said, in the hastily issued news release. “It is time for wholesale reform at RIPTA.”

Offering a counter argument to the Senate President, Norman Benoit, chair of the RIPTA board of directors, replied: “Putting DOT in charge of public transit in Rhode Island would not be sound public policy. DOT’s responsibility is to keep our state’s roads and bridges in a high state of repair. This mission is very different from RIPTA’s mission to provide transit riders with safe, reliable service.”

Benoit continued in his rebuttal, providing some historical context: “Subordinating RIPTA to DOT was proposed, and rejected, only three years ago,” Benoit said. “Nothing has changed since then, and I am certain that I speak for our riders, and all supporters of public transit across Rhode Island when I say that making RIPTA an adjunct to DOT would be a grave error.”

Beyond the back-and-forth between Benoit and the Senate President, the more important questions to ask – and answer – are: Why now? What precipitated this precipitous move?

For sure, there was RIPTA's  problematic, no-bid lobbying contract granted to losing gubernatorial Republican candidate Allan Fung and the brouhaha that followed.

And, there were the ongoing chronic financial and budget difficulties that have afflicted the public transit agency in recent months, including the dire lack of bus drivers.

But, what changed the equation? What had so threatened, disrupted and upended the status quo of the dominant narrative that it forced the Senate President to take such an action?

In ConvergenceRI’s view, it was the tragic car-strikes-pedestrian accident that occurred on Wednesday night, Feb. 15. In that incident, Superior Court Judge Richard Licht was badly injured when leaving the State House, struck down by a car while attempting to cross Smith Street.

Licht’s accident had dramatically shifted the narrative overnight to: the streets were not safe for pedestrian traffic, even in front of the State House. It put community advocates in the proverbial driver’s seat.

For months if not years, it seemed, legislative leaders and Governors had been ignoring the growing high casualty rates of pedestrians being hit, injured and killed by speeding motorists, despite the best efforts of community advocates to call attention to the problem.

Indeed, a pedestrian had been struck by a car and killed on North Main Street in Providence on Tuesday, Feb. 14, just 24 hours before Judge Licht had been struck down. [See first image.]

The deadly problem of cars hitting pedestrians could no longer be swept under the rug – especially when the victim was a prominent judge and the accident occurred on the doorstep of the State House – where the volatile mix of speeding cars, poor street lighting, and lack of pedestrian protections could no long be blamed on an alleged reckless pedestrian.

[Editor's Note: Another precipitating factor, an astute reader wrote in, was the fact that RIPTA recently received a $5 million federal grant under the Safe Streets andRoads for All to improve roadway safety and reduce fatalities and injuries.]

The changing equation
When it is a prominent, elderly white jurist who gets mowed down by a speeding driver [and not, say, a poor person of color], it changes the public perception about the problem, making it much harder to ignore. The evidence – and the growing toll of pedestrian injuries – has been well documented.

For instance, in mid-October of 2022, ConvergenceRI had nearly become a victim of a speeding car at a crosswalk [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “We all live off Hope Street.”]

As ConvergenceRI reported: On Thursday afternoon, Oct. 13, around 3 p.m., while attempting to cross Hope Street at the painted crosswalk between the CVS store and the Bank of America branch, I nearly became a tragic statistic: a pedestrian run down, mangled, and killed by a speeding car.

The car was traveling so fast – at least 40 miles an hour, probably more – that my entire body swayed in its slipstream as it shot past me. I barely managed to keep myself upright and not fall; I screamed loudly, in anger and in fright.

The driver – a middle-aged, white woman – sped away without ever slowing down, without braking, totally oblivious.

In the four days following that near kiss from death, I found myself, at times, overwhelmed by a sudden rush of emotions. The reality was still sinking in that there was no way that I would ever been able to survive such a brutal collision; no way.

What saved me? Was it my current slowness in movement, being disabled, dependent on trekking poles? Was it my overly cautious behavior these days, approaching any intersection, looking both ways at least twice? What foreshadowing might have been at play to cause my last-minute hesitancy – and save my life?

The irony of my near-fatal accident on Hope Street was not lost on me, given all my current health care struggles to stay alive.

The dangers of crossing Smith Street
Call it ironic. Some 20 months earlier, in June of 2021, apparently at the very same spot where Licht had been struck by a car, ConvergenceRI had nearly been run over by a speeding vehicle while attempting to cross Smith Street from the State House. Forced to stop, an angry driver had shouted curses and threats at ConvergenceRI.

The near-miss had been witnessed by podcaster Bill Bartholomew, who had been escorting ConvergenceRI across Smith Street back to his car. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Happy July 4.”]

As ConvergenceRI reported: As I was leaving State House following the weekly news conference held by Gov. Dan McKee and Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos on Tuesday, June 22, the white marble and brick made slick by the heavy rain that had fallen, Bill Bartholomew and Steve Ahlquist took the time to walk with me to my car, much as Steve Klamkin had accompanied me into the State House. I move very slowly, using trekking poles to keep my stability, what I liken to cross-country skiing without the skis.

As I crossed Smith Street, with Bartholomew by my side, a driver in a speeding Dodge Ram pickup slammed on his brakes to avoid hitting me. Upset that I was somehow impeding his progress, the male driver began shouting at me, cursing me out for not using the designated crosswalk. Bartholomew came to my defense, pointing to my disabled condition, to no avail.

The driver’s anger, in retrospect, seemed to capture the moment of where we are in Rhode Island. The pandemic has demonstrated and made more visible the health, racial and social disparities faced by our most vulnerable population – and, in turn, it has made many folks angry and intolerant, it seems, that so many Rhode Islanders are in need of help.

At the news conference, Gov. McKee had responded to my question about the underlying problems with Medicaid and accountable entities, and whether there needed to be an audit of private contractors working for Medicaid, by saying he was unaware of the issues, but to keep him informed as to what was going on.

I responded that Gov. McKee could read my forthcoming article in ConvergenceRI, a bit stung that he seemed to dismiss my question in a patronizing manner – even as the growing scandal at Eleanor Slate Hospital keeps worsening, which, at its heart, is about Medicaid spending.

[Editor’s Note: Two years later, the problems with Medicaid accountable entities remains an unsolved agenda item, with no audit ever having been commissioned, and the re-procurement contract, said to be worth $7 billion over five years, has been apparently postponed from starting on July 1, 2023, to July 1, 2025. The lack of adequate reimbursements for Medicaid providers remains a critical linchpin of the health care crises in Rhode Island.]

Where’s the fire?
Of all the pressing, urgent problems now facing Rhode Island – from the breakdown of the state’s health care delivery system, the floundering state takeover of the Providence Public Schools, the dire lack of affordable housing, and the growing demand for mental health and behavioral health services – the hasty pronouncement by the Senate President to push for the reorganization of the state’s public transit agency by making it part of the state’s Department of Transportation seemed to be one of desperation, in ConvergenceRI’s opinion.

For many public transportation advocates, the idea of putting RIPTA under the auspices of the R.I. Department of Transportation was guaranteed to make a bad situation worse, like jumping from the alligator lake into the crocodile pond, given the apparent prejudices of the current R.I. DPT Director Peter Alviti.

“This [proposal] is frightening,” tweeted Gayle Gifford, in response to the Senate President’s suggestion. “RIDOT under its current leadership has little interest in public transit. (Or bikes. Or pedestrians.)”

“We vehemently oppose this idea,” RIBike tweeted out. “Under the current director, RIDOT does not care about anything but cars – the law, the climate, safety, public wishes be damned. Merging RIDOT and RIPTA is the opposite of climate action.”

“Traffic violence is an epidemic,” tweeted Michael Kearney. “If three people died in 24 hours of a mysterious illness, we’d call in the feds and declare a state of emergency. We need safe streets now!”

A second Friday afternoon news dump
The Senate President was not alone in issuing what appeared to be a hastily put together news release on Friday afternoon, Feb. 17. At 3:36 p.m., the Rhode Island Foundation announced that it was leading a group of stakeholders “to jump start action on homelessness and the housing shortage.”

“Given the transition in statewide housing leadership, as well as the opportunity presented by engagement from leaders across the governmental, nonprofit and civic worlds, there is an urgent need to advance statewide housing solutions,” argued Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, in the news release announcing the foundation-led initiative. “This work will support Rhode Islanders who are currently experiencing homelessness while catalyzing new housing development and strengthening the statewide housing ecosystem.”

The initiative’s priority areas were outlined in the news release:

• Identifying short-term solutions and associated actions to meet the needs of unsheltered Rhode Islanders.

• Catalyzing new housing production and ensuring long-term organizational alignment and capacity within the R.I. Department of Housing.

• The project team will work with local stakeholders to conduct research and analysis intended to support the development of a long-term housing strategy.

• The initial fact base will better enable policymakers and housing advocates to develop an immediate action plan on homelessness and to undertake the significant, extended effort of developing the statewide strategy.

The buried lede in the news release, however, was the fact that the Rhode Island Foundation “has engaged Boston Consulting Group to support fact-gathering and analysis over the next couple of months.”

Translated, instead of depending on and supporting the existing local expertise on housing in Rhode Island, the new Foundation-led initiative was instead going to be investing in a high-priced private consulting firm to develop its own datasets – seemingly undercutting the work being done by Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness and Housing Works RI, among others.

In the news release, no dollar figure was attached to the work to be conducted by the Boston Consulting Group. ConvergenceRI immediately reached out to Chris Barnett, Senior Communications and Marketing Officer at the Rhode Island Foundation, asking: “Is there a dollar figure attached to the initial phase of this engagement, Chris? For instance, how much is the Boston Consulting Group being paid, for how long a period of time?”

Barnett’s response: “Our contract precludes us from disclosing how much we will pay them. The work will be done over the next couple of months.”

Wow. Wow. Wow. Translated, no one can say how much money the Rhode Island Foundation is paying for the work being done by the Boston Consulting Group. Nor is there any way to find out how much money is being spent, because the work is not being conducted as part of any accountable effort by the state government. How did WPRI’s Ted Nesi manage to miss this lack of accountability when he featured the new initiative in his weekly Saturday column of Feb. 18?

For those who may not remember, the Boston Consulting Group pocketed approximately $3.72 million for its roughly 20 months of work for the state in preparing responses for the coronavirus pandemic between 2020 and 2021, according to a spokesman for the R.I. Department of Administration. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “How many millions?”]

Further, McKinsey & Company, which had a pro bono arrangement with the Rhode Island Foundation to work on the state’s response to the pandemic, apparently never had a contract with the state for its work.

What might have precipitated the Friday afternoon release by the Rhode Island Foundation? Was it part of the “charm offensive” being launched by the new Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor? [See link to ConvegenceRI story below.]

In ConvergenceRI’s opinion, the straightforward testimony presented by Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness Executive Director Caitlin Frumerie and Deputy Director Margaux Morisseau, at the Tuesday, Feb. 14, meeting of the Rhode Island House Study Commission on the Low and Moderate Income Housing Act seemed to undercut the need for new initiative being promoted by Gov. McKee and his administration. [See second image.]

Frumerie and Morrisseau provided an informative presentation of homelessness in Rhode Island, the state’s minimally-effective efforts to alleviate the issue, and what can be done about the issue going forward, according to Uprise RI’s Steve Ahlquist, who attended the commission meeting and posted a video capturing the entire hearing. [See links to video of commission hearing below and the UpriseRI story.]

Among the takeways from the testimony, as reported by Ahlquist, were key points that dispelled many of the myths about homelessness.

• People do not want to live outdoors. They do so because affordable housing is not available. There is a myth that there are people who want to live outside. But such people are quite rare.

• When R.I. Gov. Dan McKee demanded to know the exact number of homeless people in the state and the exact locations of the estimated 80 encampments scattered about the state last December, he did not seem to understand the nature of homelessness. Homelessness is a moving target, a dynamic and ever-changing number. People fall in and out of homelessness. Tracking homelessness is done through the nonstop efforts of street outreach workers who meet people where they are. HMIS tracks people, not encampments. The location of encampments is sometimes known by outreach workers, but to protect the people they are serving, the location of these encampments are not routinely revealed to press, public, or the police.

Translated, the narrative about to be produced by the Rhode Island Foundation-led initiative appears to be focused upon undercutting the expertise of local experts, through the funding of private business consultants, rather than spending those resources by investing in the agencies doing the actual work on the ground.

In addition to providing the breakdowns  for families and individuals experiencing homelessness, the Coalition also provided slides that showed the disparities between supply and demand for housing, showing the gaps in coverage. [See third image.]

The Coalition also made specific recommendations detailing what legislative actions should be taken by the General Assembly to address homelessness. They included:

 Doing away with rental application fees. Many out-of-state corporate landlords charge fees, even for apartments they do not plan to rent, collecting fees from struggling renter.

•  With the Lieutenant Governor’s office, the Coalition is working to revise Fair Chance Housing legislation, which did not pass the General Assembly last year. The bill, based on Providence Housing Authority best practices, creates a shorter look-back time on police records when people are looking for housing, gives prospective tenants the right to appeal, and limits the kinds of crimes that can affect housing applications.

•  Establishing code red or code blue supplies parameters, for when there should be a state of emergency for hot and freezing temperatures. Based on a New Jersey law, the legislation would give the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency guidance on how their federal dollars should be invested in cities and towns. It would, for instance, disallow federal dollars to be used for warming centers that are not open 24 hours, like libraries.

•  Budgeting $5 million in funding for a “Housing Problem Solving Fund.” This would be different from and not replacing emergency rental funds, which are also needed.

•  The right to legal counsel for evictions. Most people being evicted do not have access to a lawyer. Landlords, on the other hand, almost always do. This power differential in eviction court needs to be addressed.

•  PayDay Lending reform. Payday loans are predatory loans given at 260 oercent APR. They are outlawed in every New England state except Rhode Island, and also outlawed nationally on or near military bases.

•  Fair notice. When a landlord proposes any increase in rent they would have to give 120 days notice to the renter.

Translated, the Coalition has already developed a detailed, specific action plan for legislative action needed to address homelessness in Rhode Island, perhaps making some of the proposed work by the high-priced Boston Consulting Group redundant.


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