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Dan Lawlor: Still Too Many Homeless People in RI

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

 

“I was born here, I will die here. Rhode Island is the first state in the nation to pass a Homeless Bill of Rights. That means hatred and bigotry are not accepted here. Soon, may we be the first state to end chronic homelessness! -John Joyce

We do not live in easy times. The Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless tells us:

In 2011, 4,410 people were documented homeless, an increase of 484 since 2007

40% of those who experience homelessness are in families.

41% of homeless in RI are women.

Earlier this summer, Rhode Island was celebrating the passage of the Homeless Bill of Rights, a first in the nation set of legal protections for the homeless.

At the bill signing ceremony, a crowd of dedicated activists, the homeless, formerly homeless, Vietnam Veterans, the media, concerned citizens, and the curious – including some tourists from Portland, Oregon (they liked Providence) - gathered outside the state house. Governor Chafee, outgoing State Senator John Tassoni and newcomer State Representative Chris Blazejewski were part of the ceremony.

The signing took place on a sunny day at the State House's red brick plaza, on the side with the raised walkway facing the Department of Transportation. Sound speakers blared a social protest music mix, ranging from “Ain't no stopping us now” by McFadden & Whitehead to “Stand up for your rights” by Bob Marley & the Wailers. The Salvation Army manned a food truck providing a free meal to attendees (the line was long).

One crowd member was clear - “Homelessness doesn't have a face. There are elderly who are homeless with no where to go. Whose helping them? We try to, but it's hard when you're homeless yourself.”

One of the triumphs of the local Occupy Movement was working with the City and the Catholic Diocese to open the Emmanuel Center for the Homeless, which is open during the day. Attendees mentioned to me, “That is the best shelter I've ever been in. The people are kind, no fights. We're trying to get ahead, and you don't have to worry there.”

Due to funding needs, the shelter was faced with closure. After organizing and collecting signatures to be presented to local Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin (who had once been bishop in the struggling mill city of Youngstown, Ohio), a local philanthropist's donations has allowed the day center to remain open throughout the summer.

Jean Pierre, a volunteer at the Bill of Rights signing ceremony, declared, “This is great for RI! This is beautiful, to be the first state to pass a homeless bill of rights into law!”

When asked, a legislator was unsure what was on the agenda for homelessness policy next year.

Jim Ryzek, of the RI Coalition for the Homeless, however, does have an idea. He mentioned plans include:

Cost-Saving Initiative – Through conversations with the Department of Health and Human Services, present proposals to show that providing housing for the chronically homeless is more cost effective and efficient than the current scatter shot way of dealing with the chronically homeless.

Dedicated Funding Stream – Work with the legislature to establish a dedicated line item in the state budget relating to supports and interventions for the chronically homeless.

Social Impact Bond – Work with private investors, along the lines of social venture capital, to float a bond dedicated to providing stability and housing opportunities for the homeless.

Willie Jackson, owner of a small handyman service who once was homeless, reflected on the celebrations of the bill's passage. “This is a great day! I want to help look out for people because no one looked out for me.”

The Reverend Don Anderson, Executive Director of the RI Council of Churches, the second to last speaker at the Homeless Bill of Rights Rally, announced, in a booming voice to cheers from the crowd, “What a celebration! We need to hold our legislature to account when they disappoint, and, when credit is due, we need to say, “Well done.” Well done!”

 

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