With temperatures expected to drop below zero this weekend, people who are homeless and living outside are at risk of frostbite and even death. Health Reporter Lynn Arditi talked with Eric Hirsch, a Providence College sociology professor who co-chairs the state’s Homeless Management Information System Steering Committee.

[This transcription has been edited.]

Lynn Arditi: Professor Hirsch, in this suddenly frigid weather are there still people in Rhode Island who are sleeping outside?

Professor Eric Hirsch: The latest count we have,  this is as of last Wednesday, and this is a count of the number of people who spent at least one night outside over the past two weeks is 306. We do understand that a lot of those people will find a way to get inside, because the windchill is expected to be 30 below zero late on Friday night. But we're concerned given the very large numbers, that there may still be people outside and they are certainly at risk of dying. We have had people die recently, one in Woonsocket, unfortunately, who died on a park bench overnight. And it wasn't even that cold. So we're very, very concerned about this. 

Arditi: So what's being done to get people who are unhoused indoors before this weekend?

Hirsch: So we are depending on the Armory. The Armory originally [was] set up as a warming center. But it turned out we needed it as a shelter and an average of 185 people are in that shelter every night. So we're hoping that some people can stay there. There may not even be cots, we can't really go over 200 in terms of the number of cots. 

Arditi: So have you spoken today or in the last 24  or 48 hours to anyone from the governor's office about this? What are you asking for? How many [shelter] beds are needed? And do we have enough to accommodate them? 

Hirsch: We need more beds. We've never had enough beds. But now it's winter. And we're still short of shelter beds. Now we have this unbelievably cold night and we still have many people staying outside. 

Arditi:  How many more shelter beds would you say we need for this weekend, if we're going to ensure that everyone who needs a bed will get one?

Hirsch: I would like to see 200–a capacity of 200 more beds–to make sure that people have a place to stay and don't freeze to death. You know, we have the problem of the former Housing Secretary [Josua D. Saal]  has resigned, and the new Housing Secretary [Stefan I. Pryor]  is not going to be in place until February 6. So we're in between housing secretaries and that's part of the problem because they would be responsible for dealing with this issue. It should be the governor's office at this point, I think in the interim between the two housing secretaries. But I don't know that anyone has stepped up to be the point person. That's why the Coalition to End Homelessness is the organization that's working on it at the moment.

Arditi: Do you know if they've gotten a meeting with the governor on this? 

Hirsch:  I do think they've been working with the state. You know, I think there has been a collaboration, I do think the state has been trying. So I just hope at some point, they realize that this is life threatening, and somebody becomes a leader and does what needs to be done.

Arditi: You started [by] saying that COVID was part of the reason that we have so many people on the street. Officially the pandemic is not in the state of emergency. However, there are still people coming down with COVID. And everybody knows that. So I'm wondering, is there concern as we try to squeeze more people into these existing warming centers, that we're going to have more people being infected, because they're just in more crowded conditions? Has that been raised?

Hirsch: I mean, that's always been a concern. And, you know, there have been attempts to try to make sure there's [social] distancing. But when you have 185 people in a very confined space, that becomes almost impossible to do. The Armory was never intended to be a shelter at all. So it's now the shelter of last resort. 

Arditi: I've heard some people who are homeless in communities like Woonsocket resort to sleeping outside, rather than going to a shelter, say in Providence. They want to be close to the things that are familiar and what they consider their home. Are you concerned what might happen if there aren't enough beds this weekend in communities where homeless people are currently living, and they don't go to the centralized shelters in the bigger cities?

Hirsch: That's a very good point. I mean, I know, even in Pawtucket, where the Black Lives Matter shelter closed because the electricity and water was shut off,  even there, they really don't want to go to the [Providence] Armory. The conditions at the Armory are not great. They're not places where anyone would really want to be, you know, there's no indoor bathrooms. There's no running water. It's not really acceptable. So people don't want to go there. They may think that they can survive out there in a tent. And our concern is that they might be wrong. 

Arditi: How would you describe the conditions there at the Armory? You said there's no running water and no indoor bathrooms.

Hirsch: So there are porta-potties outside. Obviously, it can get very cold. You know, there are people in wheelchairs. How are they supposed to go to the bathroom in a porta-potty? Amos House, to their credit, stepped up at the last minute, and said, okay, this looks like it's really not going to be good unless we come in here to help. And they've done that. I just think it's a very, very difficult situation to handle. The original Department of Housing plan was for  [a] warming center for 50 people. And then they were inundated with people who needed to stay there overnight. And they brought in cots. And so it's very crowded. And it's just not a place where most people would want to go partly due to, you know, concern about catching COVID or the flu, or, you know, other communicable diseases. 

Arditi: So if you had one message for the Governor's Office right now, in the next 24 hours, what would you say needs to be done?

Hirsch: Understand that this is a life threatening situation. There are still many people staying outside and it's going to be 30 degrees below zero [with] wind chill in 48 hours. So realize it's an emergency and open up hotels, open up warming centers. Do whatever’s necessary to keep people alive.

Health reporter Lynn Arditi can be reached at larditi@thepublicsradio.org. Follow her on Twitter @LynnArditi