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Dan Lawlor: Rhode Island Should Look to Massachuesetts to Address Homelessness

Saturday, December 01, 2012


"They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead,

Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?" -

"Brother, can you spare a dime?", Yip Harburg

You might recall, in 2009, a year before Cicilline's first run for Congress, Tent Cities began developing along the Providence River, the first aptly called Hope City.

According to Street Sights, a newspaper by and for the homeless, the location was "chosen in memory of Paul Langlais, a homeless man whose body was found there on January 2nd." A stone cross was placed on the site to recall Paul's January 2nd death.

In an interview with Street Sights, Ernie Alther, 62, said of Hope City, “Two nights ago, I slept on the steps of The Arcade. Tonight I’m sleeping here.”

The "Tent City" concept took off. The URI Good 5 Cent Cigar noted, "Rather than a person having to fend for himself, the Tent City provides a community for people facing the same situation and a safety in numbers."

In a documentary profiled by David Scharfenberg, Under the Bridge, Joyce states, "This ain't the solution, believe me. This is just a band-aid on a cut that's real big."

John Joyce, one of the founders of Hope City, declared, "There is no reason why a human being should have to freeze to death under a bridge."

By mid-2009, at least three Providence tent cities developed, attracting a range of people- some troubled, some dreamers, young people, veterans, women, couples, and long term homeless. One "city," Camp Runamuck, was the subject of a New York Times profile. The State evicted all the Providence sites, in the name of road construction and community safety (most infamously, Camp Runamuck's leader, Bruce Freitas, was a level 3 sex offender).

The state promised assistance to the dozens of stranded camp members (over one hundred at their peak), yet the shelters were already overcrowded. The 2009 Memorial Service for Homeless women and men at Beneficent Church recalled 31 people who passed away.

At the time, Rabbi Alan Flam offered these thoughts, “I would like to suggest that one way to honor the dead is to bring life and hope to the living. Or, as Mother Jones put it, we must ‘pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living!’

In January 2011, the Memorial Service at Beneficent honored 48 people who passed away. Street Sights wrote, "This year was extremely sad for the numbers were staggering."

The public recently voted for a new bond for affordable housing. It's a good start to address our crisis. Yet, I've heard from activists over and over - "We know what to do to end chronic homelessness - politics stops it." This is all the more frustrating in that there are funded examples of successful interventions nearby.

Chronic Homelessness, the experience of homelessness for three or more years, has basically ended in nearby Worcester and Quincy. According to the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, Worcester's plans "revolve around the Housing First concept, in which people who have not necessarily achieved sobriety are given housing and plenty of social services to help them through their problems and become good neighbors. John G. O'Brien, president and CEO of UMass Memorial Health Care, said, “Housing First recognizes that housing for many of these individuals is a prerequisite for people to deal with the enormous challenges of substance abuse, homelessness, and mental illness and isolation."

Organized consistent coordination among social welfare organizations, the city, and charities has resulted in a triage network focused on getting the homeless people housing and opportunities- through family and friends, supportive housing (not shelter) programs, and rehabilitation.

According to Worcester Telegram, in 2007 there were over 197 chronically homeless people in Worcester. As of last January, according to Deborah Ekstorm in the Telegram interview, "...there are only two chronically homeless people who are not housed. We believe this a first in the country."

We cannot let more and more people continue to suffer when solutions to this homelessness crisis exist, and are being implemented in a city less than an hour away, with a larger population than Providence.

Homelessness is worse now than it was in 2009. Now, it's just harder to see. Rhode Island policy makers should start asking folks in Massachusetts: What's working? Then, we should implement it.


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