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Exclusive: CCA President on Woonsocket Mayor's encampment raid
"...the Council President said, he implied anyway, that CCA was minimizing the needs of unhoused people in the City of Woonsocket. That's just not the case."
I spoke to Ben Lessing, President and CEO of the Community Care Alliance [CCA] about the encampment visit organized by Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, and joined by Governor Daniel McKee, that turned into a raid resulting in the arrest of two men on drugs and weapons charges.
Mr. Lessing was responding, in part, to my earlier interview with Woonsocket City Council President Christopher Beauchamp.
Here is our conversation, in its entirety, edited for clarity:
Steve Ahlquist: In my recent interview with Council President Christopher Beauchamp, there may have been some inaccurate statements made about the encampment visit, and there are some things you want to address.
Ben Lessing: The thing that concerned me the most was that the Council President said, he implied anyway,1 that CCA was minimizing the needs of unhoused people in the City of Woonsocket. That's just not the case. We said to the local homeless task force, last week, that we were seeing as many as 60+ people a day coming to Safe Haven, our drop-in center, and that we're unsheltered and seeking support. We've never minimized the need at all.
Steve Ahlquist: So you've never said there were like 20 people out there or 50 people out there. You said 60 people are showing up at Safe Haven and that doesn't even account for all the people who would be unhoused in the city. 60 people showing up at the drop-in center usually means other people didn't show up that day...
Ben Lessing: That's right. Plus the fact, and I said this in an email to one of the council people today, that we don't have the capacity to do any kind of accurate count on a daily basis. We're one of multiple providers in Woonsocket that are serving the population.
CCA is out there and we have been trying to develop resources. It's just not accurate that we've been minimizing the count. If anything, we have submitted proposals to the Department of Housing for consolidated homeless funds to develop yet another shelter building at the Sure Stay. We've submitted a proposal to acquire that site so that we could not only create another shelter but also use it for affordable housing down the road. The Council President and I have a fine relationship, but he's not come to any of the homeless task force meetings. So I don't know where his comment is coming from.
Steve Ahlquist: The Council President said that you were invited to accompany the mayor and the governor on that trip.
Ben Lessing: I got an email last week from Mayor Baldelli-Hunt's secretary, the mayor was copied, asking that I accompany her on a tour. This is the second time this has happened. This happened several weeks ago also. My question about these kinds of things is, What is the objective here? Why are we out there? What are we doing? What do we hope to accomplish? And I never get a response.
Steve Ahlquist: I have asked that same question and no one will give me an answer on or off the record.
Ben Lessing: As you know, we have outreach staff and harm reduction staff out there all of the time. We know how severe the conditions are. If we didn't know that, we wouldn't be advocating so hard for additional resources. So I don't understand what the purpose of these tours is. The other issue is that we have staff that are trained to work with folks in these conditions. Some of our clients have serious mental illness and addiction concerns. They've been traumatized multiple times. You don't just sort of show up and start asking them questions.
Steve Ahlquist: Yes, I know what you're saying.
Ben Lessing: I'm not begrudging the council for wanting to understand more, but from my point of view, we have said this stuff over and over and over and over again.
Another thing is that there have been times when the city has requested that we go and clean up encampments. We don't have the resources to do that. That's not what the outreach contracts are about. That's not what harm reduction is about. What continues to be missing here is, Where are the resources, and What is going to happen?
This Sure Stay site that we have been trying to develop has the potential to have some benefit to Woonsocket and that's not lost on us. That's one of our objectives. Our objective is to get as many people off the streets of Woonsocket as possible. We know it's not good for them. We know they die. I am a little bit impatient with the idea of going out and looking at the severity of their situation without taking any steps toward developing resources - because that's what has to happen.
Steve Ahlquist: Is there anything else I should know?
Ben Lessing: I know you cover the whole state and you've been covering this issue in particular, but we've got outreach staff that are just burned out. They're burned out because they see the suffering on a day-to-day basis and they have nothing to offer in terms of resources. We can't expect them to keep doing this stuff over and over again without being able to provide the clients relief in terms of resources. For the staff that we're sending out there, it's just a horrific situation.
Steve Ahlquist: It is. CCA staff are doing amazing work up there. You've got amazing people working for you, and their compassion and dedication humbles me. I truly appreciate them.
Ben Lessing: Thank you for saying that.
Ben Lessing sent the following letter to members of the Woonsocket City Council on Monday morning:
Dear City Council Members,
I am writing to you on behalf of the Board and Staff of Community Care Alliance. Over the past several weeks, our outreach staff and many of the homeless individuals and families we serve have heard consistent rumors that the City will implement sweeps of local homeless encampments to remove this vulnerable population. We cannot verify whether this is an accurate plan or not. That being said, we urge the Council not to endorse this approach for the following reasons:
There simply are not sufficient shelter resources to address the local needs.
Irrespective of how difficult it is to see these encampments whether in Woonsocket or elsewhere, the reality is that homeless individuals are subject to daily trauma psychologically and their healthcare is impacted as has been evidenced by the over 30 deaths locally in recent years. Sweeps will only add to this trauma.
The Council's efforts would be better focused on advocating to the General Assembly and Department of Housing to develop sufficient intermediate shelter resources and then more affordable and supported housing to meet the needs of individuals and families.
As we have commented and testified on multiple occasions, the homeless crisis in RI is a complex issue that particularly impacts low-income individuals who simply cannot access or afford housing within their financial means. The situation is further exacerbated by the number of people who experience serious mental illness and/or addiction concerns and increasingly, families with children. The scarcity of affordable housing has been a problem in Rhode Island for years and became even more acutely so, subsequent to the pandemic. The most reasonable approach to this problem should focus on shelter, treatment resources, and an array of new housing options. Seeing individuals who are the victims as "the problem" of this situation is not only not productive, but it also eliminates their dignity and humanity and minimizes the despair in which they live on a daily basis.
Again, we would urge the Council to work in particular with the General Assembly, Department of Housing, and BHDDH to provide additional shelter and treatment resources in Woonsocket, Northern Rhode Island, and throughout the State.
Benedict F. Lessing, Jr. MSW, President/CEO Community Care Alliance
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