PAWTUCKET – First-term lawmaker and lieutenant governor candidate Cynthia Mendes was asked this week whether she gave any thought to waiting until after the holidays to start her nightly sleep-out in front of the Rhode Island Statehouse.
“Other people don’t have that kind of luxury,” came her quick reply to The Breeze.
Mendes, in a conversation last Saturday evening, Dec. 4, said she’s in quite a bit of pain from sleeping outside as a homeless person does, including in her jaw from constant clenching and chattering, as well as muscle spasms in her shoulders, but she said none of that will cause her to go back home to spend a warm night in bed, and none of it compares to what the homeless have been experiencing for years.
“I shouldn’t have to do this at all,” she said, but she reiterated that she’ll be here as long as it takes.
Mendes, a Riverside resident from Senate District 18, representing East Providence and Pawtucket, said she never gave a second thought to her all-out commitment to sleeping outside every night, starting Nov. 29, and will remain in place until state leaders act in response to the homelessness crisis “and we’re sure our crisis of homelessness is over.”
She said she packed a lot of oatmeal packets, and people have been very generous with coffee and donuts for her and others who are supporting the cause.
Mendes, 41 and a single mother, is working remotely in her job as project manager at Renew New England, where she and gubernatorial running mate candidate Matt Brown are regional council members. The goal of the organization is to make sure that all people, including traditionally underrepresented minority groups, have a safe place to call home, food for their family, and clean air to breathe and water to drink.
Gov. Dan McKee, who is running on a ticket in next year’s race with Lieutenant Gov. Sabina Matos, announced earlier this month that $5 million would be used to create nearly 300 more beds for homeless residents around the state, as well as other investments in affordable housing and other initiatives.
The number of Rhode Islanders waiting for a shelter as of Oct. 30 was more than 1,000.
On Monday, McKee and General Assembly leaders announced the legislature’s commitment to act on the governor’s RI Rebounds proposal to allocate an initial 10 percent of $1.13 billion in ARPA funds as a downpayment on the state’s recovery.
The proposal includes $38.5 million to support children, families, and social supports; $32 million to help small businesses impacted by COVID-19; $29.5 million to promote affordable housing, housing stability supports, and broadband; and $13 million for hard-hit tourism, hospitality and event industries.
Mendes and Brown afterward said the plan, including an extension of hotel vouchers, was “egregiously inadequate,” saying they and supporters will continue to sleep outside near the Statehouse.
Mendes said her daughter, now in her senior year, is supportive of her effort to advocate for the homeless, but concerned about her well-being.
Mendes said she is being careful about not doing any non-Statehouse work while at the Statehouse, finding various warm places to work or take a shower during the day. On Monday morning, she answered the phone after pulling into the driveway of a friend’s home, where she planned to brush her teeth.
Mendes spent much of her career in health care as a clinical supervisor and treatment coordinator in the dental field, also working previously with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Rhode Island.
She has long been involved, going back before her successful campaign for office last year, in causes related to the homeless, helping homeless people find shelter and working with food pantries.
“That’s my background,” she said.
She worked two jobs as a single mother while serving homeless friends at the Mathewson Street Church. Those same people have remained unseen by the government, she emphasized.
“The difference between being lost and found is being seen or unseen,” she said.
She decided a more drastic step was needed as the homelessness crisis worsened this year and state leaders refused to act in response. She said she grew especially angry after being asked as a candidate to spell out what she would do about the crisis.
“I don’t want to put out a paper on what I would do, if I have power to (act on it),” she said. “We’re only accountable to the power that we have now, and the power I have now is to make a big demand and draw a lot of attention to a crisis that the Statehouse wants to ignore.”
Women of color, from Rosa Parks to Cori Bush, have always had to fight for what’s right, she said, and like them, she’s tired of being told how she should be doing that fighting, including what bills will be paid attention to. As with Parks and Bush and others, she was forced to take a more dramatic step in fighting her own way, she said.
Homelessness will never be eradicated completely, Mendes said, but there are plenty of resolutions state leaders can implement in response to the worsening crisis, including many that she and her friends in the advocacy and service provider fields have suggested, from eviction moratoriums to creating shelters, to vouchers for hotel stays. For just 1 percent of the state’s $1 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, every one of the homeless people statewide could be put in a hotel, she said, but those tangible steps have been ignored.
This isn’t “just a Providence thing,” she said, but is seen everywhere, including Pawtucket and East Providence. A Woonsocket physician who’s been in the tents every night works with suicidal patients who are homeless, as are a case manager who helps LGBTQ youth who have aged out of the foster system and a constituent from Rumford who has housed three working adults.
“They know the stakes,” she said.
To be clear, she said, advocates have seen more generosity toward the homeless than ever, people who are putting their money and time where their mouth is. The state thinks this is a working-class problem or a nonprofit problem, she said, while sitting on the biggest source of revenue it’s had in a long time. Adding insult to injury, the state sold off group homes to make millions of dollars more.
“They left me no choice,” she said.