Brown and McKee spar over homelessness, Human Services jobs

Luna Ruth

As candidates offered closing remarks at the end of the 90-minute forum, Brown focused on the homelessness crisis in Rhode Island, reminding attendees that he and Senator Cynthia Mendes, who is running for lieutenant governor, slept in tents outside the State House for 16 days to pressure McKee to do more about homelessness.

He said the McKee administration ended up creating 400 winter shelter beds, but he claimed McKee “had no plan for what to do after the winter” and said hundreds of people are living on the street while more than $1 billion from the federal government, including emergency relief funds, remained unspent.

“That is a policy choice,” Brown said. He challenged the governor to commit to creating “500 emergency non-congregate shelter beds so that our people don’t sleep outside?”

McKee said he’s glad Brown asked the question because there’s “misinformation all over the place.”

He pointed out that “I’m the governor who put $5 million on the table three weeks before the campout in front of the State House” and noted that, that he has budgeted $250 million for housing.

“We are going to leverage that for $1 billion worth of housing,” McKee said. “I have have made a commitment, and I keep my commitments, that we will build out shelter as the first step for the coldest day of the year.”

Another Democratic candidate, Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz, jumped in, calling Brown’s encampment at the State Hosue “performative” and asking “Who was at the rent relief clinics?”

Another exchange occurred when the candidates were asked about the state Department of Human Services, which is responsible for food stamps, child care assistance, and other crucial programs.

McKee said the department “certainly has some skeletons in its closet,” citing the state public-assistance computer system known as UHIP (Unified Health Infrastructure Project). Deloitte Consulting designed the troubled system, which cost more than $600 million, and its 2016 rollout under former governor Gina M. Raimondo was beset by technical problems, causing thousands of delays in distributing food stamp benefits.

“We inherited that,” McKee said. But he said his administration has formed a team to deal with Medicaid issues that are crucial to the department. “We are going to be prepared. We are not going to go through another UHIP.”

McKee said he has proposed a budget that calls for additional staff in the Department of Human Services. “We put in a budget for 40 new hires,” he said. “We’ve got another 80 or so to hire in to make sure that we are prepared.”

But Brown said the governor “left 100 vacancies unfilled” in February. “Now you are talking about privatizing 48 positions from union experienced workers to Deloitte – the company at the center of the UHIP crisis,” he said. “You are talking about the UHIP skeleton – you are bringing the skeleton back to life.”

Meanwhile, Rhode Islanders “are not getting the services they need, all because you couldn’t be bothered to show up and do your job,” Brown told McKee. “Offices have closed. People are waiting four hours to get food assistance for themselves and their family.”

When asked after the forum about the use of Deloitte to fill state positions, McKee said, “I believe we are not able to hire in all the spots that need to be hired into. We need the staff in place. We are reapplying basically for the Medicaid benefits, and we are going to make sure we have the staff there.”

The state has found it hard to hire for those positions “based on the hiring practices that are set up,” he said. “We would love to have the union give us the authority to hire in right now, and if they did we wouldn’t have to follow bumping procedures that are slowing the process down.”

Matthew Gunnip, president of SEIU Local 580/Rhode Island Alliance of Social Service Employees, decried the decision to use Deloitte to fill those 48 vacant state jobs.

“That is a slap in the face to front-line workers who are understaffed and have the institutional knowledge,” he said. “To hire some private contractor that was responsible for UHIP and for many of the problems they already have there is irresponsible. Public human services should be nonprofit. To bring in a corporate for-profit contractor is unacceptable.”

Gunnip said McKee’s statements about the union slowing down the hiring process are nonsense. He said the union has been having weekly meetings with the administration, and the administration has slowed things down by failing to post vacant positions and by failing to bring human resources officials to meetings between the governor’s office and labor.

The forum began with five candidates talking about how they’d ensure that an influx of federal and state funding will produce affordable housing throughout the state when just six of 39 towns and cities meet the goal of ensuring 10 percent of their housing stock is low- or moderate-income housing.

“I’ll tell you what I won’t do,” said Ashley Kalus, the lone Republican candidate on stage. “Unlike the current governor, I will not give out contracts to my friends, family members, or to insiders. We need to make sure contracts are given out based on merit.”

Kalus said she would create a council to work with local leaders in the cities and towns that fall short of the 10 percent affordable housing goal. “They know their communities best,” she said. “The expectation is once we find what the problem is we work together on the solution.”

Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, the former executive director of HousingWorks RI, looked around the room, saying, “It feels almost like family reunion for me. I worked with so many of you to address challenges of building affordable housing.”

Gorbea, a Democrat, said she is glad the House this week passed a bill to elevate the position of deputy secretary of commerce for housing to a Cabinet-level position in the governor’s office. “That is how important this issue is,” she said. “Housing is key to solving so many of our issues, to moving so many agendas forward.” For example, a children who moves twice within a school year because of housing issues will have a tough time catching up in school, she said.

McKee said that soon after taking office last year, he proposed a state budget that for the first time gave Rhode Island a dedicated funding stream for affordable housing, and he called for the General Assembly to approve his request for $250 million for housing.

The Democratic governor said he had success on affordable housing initiatives when he was mayor of Cumberland, and as governor he said he has weekly meetings with municipal leaders and understands the zoning and planning issues involved.

Muñoz, a Democrat, said he grew up poor in Central Falls and experienced homelessness. “It’s different when you experience something because then you realize things haven’t change for a reason,” he said.

Elected officials and organizations need to do more to create affordable housing in Rhode Island, Muñoz said. “The governor should be the state’s activist, the governor should be the state’s educator, and the governor should be the first one to act when these issues arise. And this issue has been persistent since I was a child in this state.”

Brown called for eliminating the bans on multi-family homes found in many communities. He called for funding 10,000 “green, truly affordable homes.” And he criticized a bill that would allow municipalities to count “two-bedroom apartments that cost up to $2,500 a month” as affordable housing. “That is ridiculous,” he said.

Former CVS executive Helena B. Foulkes, a Democrat, did not attend Friday’s forum because she tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday night.

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.

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