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10 families can soon move into Zambarano ‘cottages’ in Burrillville


10 families can soon move into Zambarano ‘cottages’ in Burrillville

Oct 03, 2023 | 4:56 pm ET
By Christopher Shea
10 families can soon move into Zambarano ‘cottages’ in Burrillville
State Properties Committee Member Gregory Schultz, foreground, watches as Housing Department Project Manager Lauren Barnes, left, presents a lease agreement to temporarily shelter around 30 unhoused people in Burrillville. To the right of her is Tess Gleason, a paralegal for the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities & Hospitals. (Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

PROVIDENCE — A temporary homeless shelter could be opened in Burrillville as soon as this Friday after the State Properties Committee Tuesday unanimously approved a nine-month lease with the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities & Hospitals (BHDDH) to move 10 families to the northwest corner of the state.

The move comes five months after Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor unveiled preliminary plans to negotiate with Tri-County Community Action Agency, a Johnston-based nonprofit, to house 30 people in the state-owned “cottages” on the Zambarano campus of Eleanor Slater Hospital.

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Though unoccupied now, the three buildings were last used in 2021 for families looking to isolate and quarantine themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic. Before that, they were used for adolescent substance-abuse recovery services.

“I’m happy that state buildings that were vacant are being upgraded,” Committee member Gregory Schultz said during the meeting. “It’s providing a very important benefit for 30 or more people who need it.”

Lauren Barnes, a project manager for the state’s Department of Housing, told committee members that Tri-County will oversee all day-to-day operations. That includes daily maintenance and transportation vans to get residents into town, along with overseeing programs such as job training and GED certification, along with physical and mental health services.

Tri-County, through a caterer, will also provide residents of the temporary shelter with pre-cooked meals, as the cottages do not have their own kitchens — just refrigerators and microwaves, Barnes said.

“We’re very much looking forward to helping,” Tri-County Director of Community and Legislative Affairs Richard DelFino said after the meeting adjourned.

The cost will be up to $1.1 million for the program, Housing Department spokesperson Joey Lindstrom said in an email Tuesday night. He added that Tri-County will be billing Medicaid for any allowable costs and that the nonprofit “is in the process of pursuing additional cost savings.”

Barnes said in an interview that families will be chosen through the state’s Coordinated Entry System —  a calling system designed to ensure people experiencing housing insecurity have “fair and equal access” to shelter.

Upon signing up, Barnes said people are offered a spot at a shelter and they can accept or wait for another space.

“It’s a dual acceptance,” she said.

Senate Minority Leader Jessica de la Cruz, a Republican who represents Burrillville, had expressed reservations over the state’s proposal to move unhoused people to the cottages last spring. De la Cruz toured the cottages with state and Burrillville officials on Sept. 6. 

“I am not against the placement of homeless families in the cottages at Zambarano, as long as the mission of the hospital remains intact and patients do not lose the ability to freely enjoy the campus,” de la Cruz said in a statement Tuesday.

“I am not surprised by the vote to move forward with short-term housing and while I was encouraged by the presentation and my observations during the recent tour, I will remain watchful to ensure the best interests of the patients and staff continue to be met,” she added.

One of the "cottages" the state hopes to repurpose into a temporary shelter for unhoused families. (Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)
One of the “cottages” on the campus of the Zambarano unit of Eleanor Slater Hospital the state hopes to repurpose into a temporary shelter for unhoused families. (Photo by Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

Two out of three cottages ready

Barnes told commissioners that she anticipates the cottages could start being occupied “at the end of this week,” though it’s still dependent on how ready the buildings are.

She said that two of the three have been signed off by the state fire marshal, but one had “a few deficiencies” that are getting repaired. Barnes did not disclose which cottage needed work, nor what issues it faced.

“In the case that it is not [approved], we just will not occupy that cottage until that is cleared and good to go,” she said. 

The cottages were likely built after 1935 when, according to a history timeline on the agency’s website, funding was used for the construction of buildings at the State Sanitarium at Wallum Lake.

Prep work by Tri-County is also a factor in when people can move in.

“They’re doing a lot of training,” Barnes said.

Barnes said while there are three buildings on the campus, only two would primarily be used for housing.

One of the cottages was converted into office and classroom space. Barnes said it will remain that way in order to accommodate Head Start and vocational programming, along with offices for people to meet with their case managers.

“It does have some space in case if there’s [a] possible overflow need or quarantine,” Barnes said.

DelFino said that staff will be on-site 24/7 as it helps unhoused families.

Though the officials at the meeting voted to officially approve a nine-month term, the lease can be used for “up to one year” with the chance to renew, but Barnes said the Department of Housing does not intend to use the space any longer in case BHDDH needs to use the cottages.

In May, BHDDH spokesperson Randy Edgar said after it is used as a temporary shelter, the state-run hospital plans to use the cottages as Enhanced Mental Health Psychiatric Rehabilitative Residences, which serve adults who need 24-hour supervision and support but do not require hospital level of care.

When asked by the committee if the housing department would come back with other leases and agreements, Barnes said there is always a possibility new shelter options could be presented.

“We are absolutely open and wanting to use any state facility that we could,” Barnes said. “The overall goal is to move folks into a permanent home.”

This story has been updated to include the cost of the deal with Tri-County Community Action Agency.