OpenDoors R.I., an organization that works to support formerly incarcerated individuals and their families, began operating a 24-hour warming shelter at 1139 Main Street in Pawtucket late last month. The shelter offers occupants three meals a day, peer recovery support services, assistance with ID and license reinstatement and addiction treatment program entry, according to Dina Bruce, program director at OpenDoors R.I.
With a staff that includes a case manager and health worker, the new warming center has 31 total beds and a maximum capacity of 50 people. The shelter aims to “offer people as much support as we can for them to move onto the next part of their life,” said Nick Horton ’04, co-executive director of OpenDoors.
“This place is fantastic,” said Marcos Rodrquez, who currently resides at the shelter. “I’m comfortable. I sleep good. I wake up with energy. … I’m at peace.”
The City of Pawtucket initially opened an emergency warming center at 1139 Main St. due to the cold temperatures at the beginning of February. Following the cold spell, the center closed until OpenDoors took over operations on Feb. 24. The shelter will remain open until June 30 and will serve as a cooling center during the summer, Horton said.
‘I just want to give back’: Opening and operating the warming center
According to Horton, OpenDoors has been interested in opening new shelters in the state for the last three years. The organization had tried for over a year to establish a shelter, but a lack of building availability prevented them from doing so.
Following the initial emergency period, the state opened up applications for local organizations that wished to operate the Pawtucket shelter on a more permanent basis. OpenDoors applied and, after being selected, proposed and negotiated an operations budget with the state.
OpenDoors has “been doing similar work for close to 20 years,” Horton said. “Our agency is largely led and staffed with people (who have) lived experience of either incarceration, addiction or homelessness."
According to Horton, Bruce was selected to run the shelter due to her prior experience running a women’s transitional program and men’s shelter. “The rapport is easier built because I’m relatable,” Bruce said, sharing that she had been previously incarcerated. “I just want to give back."
The 1139 Main St. building is owned by the Pawtucket Housing Authority. While PHA doesn’t play a “true role” in shelter operations, PHA Executive Director Paula McFarland said that the shelter supports the PHA’s mission to provide a “safe place while (unhoused people) are searching and looking for a more permanent or supportive type of housing."
According to Grace Voll, communications director for Pawtucket Mayor Donald R. Grebien, the new shelter is a crucial step toward addressing the city’s issues with homelessness and the lack of full-time shelters in the Ocean State.
“Homelessness is a problem the state is grappling with and we in Pawtucket are committed to helping state leaders address this problem,” Voll wrote in an email to The Herald.
‘We all have to do our part’: Addressing issues of homelessness
According to the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness, which aims to find lasting solutions to homelessness in the state, there are currently 347 Rhode Islanders without shelter. And the “trend line seems to be going up,” particularly among “the big metros,” said Juan Espinoza, the organization’s communications and development manager.
According to Voll, the population of people experiencing homelessness in Pawtucket is high “because Pawtucket is an urban and highly populated city.”
“The amount of housing available for low-income folks does not meet the need,” Espinoza said.
According to a March 2023 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition released Thursday, there are only 53 affordable and available homes per 100 extremely low-income renter households in Rhode Island. The report defines extremely low-incomes as “incomes at or below either the federal poverty guideline or 30% of the area median income (AMI), whichever is higher."
According to Espinoza, the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness is championing bills aimed to address root causes of homelessness. These bills address housing fees, eviction notices and support for people leaving the criminal justice system, Espinoza said.
But zoning and other permitting processes can delay the creation of low- and moderate-income units and shelters, Espinoza said. This perpetuates housing shortages which have forced people experiencing homelessness to relocate, he added.
“Some of these folks, they work in the city. … These are neighbors, these are people who went to the same high schools, same middle schools we went to,” he said. “They’re contributing to your local economy and you’re getting rid of them because they don’t have a home.”
“Homelessness is now in all our backyards, and we all have to do our part,” Espinoza said. “There’s a lot of hopefulness (from people currently living in shelters) that things are going to turn around, and I hope they’re right.”