Family Shelter closes, to be affordable housing

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The former St. Benedict Church convent on Beach Avenue in Conimicut, which for years operated as a family shelter, is about to go through another transition.

The shelter, operated by Crossroads Rhode Island, closed in December. Following extensive renovations, it is to reopen as four units of permanent affordable housing.

Funding is in place for the project – which is estimated to cost $1,036,000 – and “we’re 95 percent of the way there,” Michelle Wilcox, chief operating officer at Crossroads, said in an interview Tuesday. She said details are being worked out with Citizens Bank, which holds the mortgage, as well Rhode Island Housing and the Rhode Island Family Shelter, owner of the building.

The building, which was expanded to include an upper story when operated by the Rhode Island Family Shelter, has seven permanent housing apartments. Those will remain in place even during construction, which will be focused on the ground floor of the former convent. Planned are two three-bedroom, one two-bedroom and one one-bedroom units.

Wilcox said the approach to dealing with homeless families has always been to find them permanent housing, and while Crossroads will continue to operate a temporary shelter for 15 families in Providence, the emphasis is on averting homelessness. She said this might mean helping a family avoid being evicted for failure to pay rent or questioning them as to where they had been previously and perhaps making arrangements there.

She said the effort is in compliance with the coordinated entry program mandated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development for federal homeless funding.

Wilcox said every option is explored before placing a family in a shelter.

“We’re working hard as a state to get people’s time in a shelter as brief as possible,” she said. “There is a real lack of permanent housing.”

Wilcox said families living at the shelter were “transitioned to permanent shelters” at the end of last year. Since then, the shelter has been vacant with the exception of a staff member who works part time out of the building to provide services to the permanent tenants living in the second floor units.

The Rhode Island Family Shelter, which accommodated 10 families, had its roots in the Norwood Baptist Church basement that was run by volunteers and subdivided into living spaces by blankets as wall dividers. It grew and ended up occupying the former convent and building the addition for seven apartments.

Funding was always a problem, and while volunteers helped provide overnight staffing and kitchen details, the shelter was forced to cut back and it closed in July 2015. Then Mayor Scott Avedisian held talks with the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless and Crossroads, and in September 2015 Crossroads reopened the shelter.

Wilcox said the goal has always been to transition to permanent housing. She said plans for the conversion to apartments have been discussed with the city and Crossroads will be coming before the Zoning Board for a revision to its permit for a non-conforming use under existing zoning. She pointed out that permanent housing would actually result in a reduction of the number of people living in the building.

Funding for the project includes $1,052,000 from a state affordable housing bond and a $36,000 Community Development Block Grant earmarked for architectural and design work.

Wilcox is hopeful work could start by early this summer.

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