Dan Lawlor: Time to Address to Rhode Island’s Homelessness Crisis

Tuesday, May 01, 2012


The poster art is jarring. An illustration of an elderly man, wrapped in a blanket, stares at the viewer. His head covered, the sign he's holding reads, "Keep the coins. I want change."

Since the start of the financial crisis, the number of homeless and out of work Rhode Islanders has increased. In hard numbers, by December 2007, 3,926 people had contact with the homeless shelter system, and the state's unemployment rate stood at 5.7%. Last December, 4,410 people had contact with the homeless shelter system, and the state's unemployment rate stood at 10.7%. In short, 484 more people were homeless in 2011 than 2007.

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In Pawtucket, a working class city where the American industrial revolution began, a group of people are trying to change the rising charts of homeless.

1070 Collaborative is a partnership made of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, the Housing Network, and the Housing Action Coalition of Rhode Island. 1070 has been crucial in compiling data, sponsoring an awareness raising soup kitchen at the state house (with elected official volunteers ranging from Tassoni to Costa), and advocating for policy transformations to improve the lives and opportunities for thousands of Rhode Islanders. Karen Jeffreys, of RI Coalition for the Homeless, was quite clear "we can change the experience of a person who's homeless, or in danger of homelessness, in Rhode Island."

Who are Rhode Island's homeless? Women, men, veterans, gay, straight, runaways, families, alcoholics, drug addicts, children, workers. 40% of Rhode Island's homeless are families, and 41% are female.

Four bills are being considered in this year's General Assembly that could dramatically change circumstances for Rhode Island's poor and working classes. As Jeffreys says, "We don't have to see the numbers of homeless rise every year- we get tired of announcing this is the worst year for homelessness ever....With the right supports and preventions, more people have affordable opportunities."

  • Funding Stream for Homelessness Prevention and Housing Maintenance Bills H7237, H7265, and S2203 would create a funding stream related to homelessness prevention and affordable housing initiatives. This dedicated line item would ensure some continuity in funding to help ease the challenges of housing affordability and homelessness. This would create a stream of money for rental assistance, affordable housing production, rehab, foreclosure prevention, and more.
  • Housing Bond for Construction One key aspect of the dedicated funding stream is sponsoring a housing bond to fund affordable housing construction. Governor Chafee is proposing a $25 million dollar housing bond and the Assembly bills above propose $75 million. From 2006-2011, a $ 50 million dollar bond measure funded and produced over 1200 affordable homes and apartment units in 30 communities across the state. The 2006 bond was a support for a steady stream of construction jobs and various affordable housing units, including 50 bond-funded homes in West Greenwich, 52 apartment units in Coventry, 418 apartment units in Providence, 65 units in North Smithfield, among hundreds of others.
  • Homeless Bill of Rights - Bills S2052 and H7173 have arisen out of violence and discrimination experienced by local homeless. The Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project has been advocating for the rights of homeless individuals, and have highlighted the personal violence suffered by the homeless at the hands of gangs in the city, and the structural violence that can occur trying to file a police report, rent an apartment, or vote. The bill ensures homeless Rhode Islanders are granted the same access to public services (voting, police, etc) as any other citizen. In an Associated Press interview from January, Senator Tassoni has argued, "If it doesn't affect you personally it's easy to forget about these people. This would give people something to rely on. These people are already struggling, and too often they have their dignity taken away from them too."
  • Preventing "New Homelessness" The recession has been particularly cruel in creating a class of "new homeless" - individuals and families who were renting apartments from landlords who had their property foreclosed on. Banks, upon acquiring the property, forced out tenants, some of whom entered the shelter system out of lack of options.

Bills S2212 and H7136 are specifically designed to prohibit banks from evicting tenants and former homeowners from foreclosed properties unless there is "just cause" for the eviction. Rent paying tenants should not have to vacate simply because ownership switches to a bank.

Drive around neighborhoods in Providence, and you will see dozens of empty, foreclosed properties. It does the neighborhoods and surrounding homeowners no good to have rent-paying neighbors exchanged for plywood covered houses. This bill, requiring just cause by a bank before eviction, would do much to eliminate the instability to lives and neighborhoods caused by bank induced homelessness.

The 1070 Collaborative is working with allies and advocates from Providence College, Brown University, URI, and the local faith community to change the experience of homelessness, and grow advocacy to end chronic homelessness through a Housing First model.

The bills above won't solve all the problems, but they will help create a framework that is more fair. We can ease the challenges of homelessness, and work to end chronic homelessness. Will we?


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