SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — In the cold of the winter, as summer’s hot beach days are a long distant memory, scores of homeless people in South County search for any place warm to live — and sometimes just to sleep for the night.
To help keep a focus on South County— rather than the rest of the state — Welcome House shelter decided this year to forego $24,000 in state emergency winter shelter funds and limit the number of people staying for longer than one night.
This will allow the shelter to avoid having to take people from around the state first while turning away local residents because of a shortage of beds. It also means that it cannot run its traditional secondary shelter at Peace Dale Congregational Church on Columbia Street due to a lack of funds.
“By not taking the money, basically all that did was make sure that we can take people who show up at our doorstep,” said Emily Cummiskey, chairperson of the shelter’s board of directors.
The shelter’s problem came because the money for one-night emergency housing was hinged on serving anyone in the state and with a focus on the those with the most severe substance abuse or mental health illnesses, she said.
Welcome House, with long-standing partner, benefactor and supporter Peace Dale Congregational Church, have until this year offered winter overnight sheltering in the church building seven days a week from December through early April.
In the last two years, more than 1,000 “guest nights,” as they are called, were logged at the church when someone would stay for the night and leave by 7 a.m., she said. Counting repeat visitors, this totaled about 250 or more individual men and women, she said.
“These are individuals who are not typically looking for a permanent solution and know that this is temporary,” said Cummiskey, also a church member.
While many find temporary housing or something transitional until better opportunities come along, there are others looking for emergency overnight assistance to escape the frigid temperatures.
Without the state funds, the shelter and staff decided to continue to offer the service at Welcome House with any overflow going to the church, she said, noting it is accepting other state funds without restrictions.
Narragansett and South Kingstown have long had demand for housing for people who cannot afford either market-rate prices and lose out when summer brings peak-season prices in those same homes.
This squeezes the most vulnerable, housing officials say, who can neither afford an apartment, rental house or motel or who often have serious substance abuse or mental health issues leading family members to show them the door.
In the winter, officials said, the problem becomes more serious because some still attempt to sleep outside as they do in the late spring, summer and to mid-fall.
To help those facing the situation in the cold winter months, Peace Dale Congregational Church and Welcome House until this year operated daily December through early spring an overnight shelter in the church building for several years.
It was staffed by church volunteers and current or former guests of Welcome House.
That approach, however, met difficulties under a new state “Coordinated Entry System” plan required for anyone receiving this state winter emergency assistance funds, Cummiskey said.
It works this way, she explained. Homeless people would call a central number and then be assigned, depending how fragile or vulnerable they are, to a shelter in any part of the state.
The most critical individuals are assigned beds first regardless of the town or city from which they are calling, she said.
“So, what we started to see is the acuity (severity) and the needs of our guests really increased. And we really weren’t serving just people who were facing homelessness in South County anymore,” she said.
“We were serving people from outside areas as well, which is an important mission. However, what we faced as a challenge is that it really changes your staffing needs,” she said.
She said that Welcome House could not operate a separate shelter, such as at PDCC, on the money allocated.
The acuteness of some people sent to South County required too much of the volunteers whose background did not include extensive training to deal with the variety of issues, such as severe mental health and substance abuse problems, she said.
Right now, Welcome House sees about five overnight guests each day and has not needed to activate the overflow plan at the church, Cummiskey said. However, the church has on standby teams of people and supplies should the need arise, she added.
Whether Welcome House takes state funds next year is unclear right now, she said, noting the state is compiling information from shelters about ways the requirements are changing shelter operations.
“They (state officials) are making changes currently based feedback from shelters around the state in terms of how make it better. Last year was only year one and I think it is pretty typical in the first year a program is rolled out there will be some issues,” she said.