On Wednesday, the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless (RICH) announced the most recent numbers for homelessness in the state, which revealed that only 17 former Johnston residents no longer have a place to call home.
Using “The Wizard of Oz” as their theme, RICH and other advocates for affordable housing and homeless prevention hoped to convince the state legislature to support Senate bill 494 and House bill 5554. The companion bills would allocate $3.25 million for rental vouchers and emergency winter shelter costs.
“They need a rental they can afford,” said Karen Jeffreys of RICH, who explained that Rhode Island has among the highest rental costs in the country, averaging $945 a month for a two-bedroom.
“We got a very positive reaction from representatives and senators alike,” she said. “The Munchkins went to see Senator [Teresa] Pavia-Weed and she said everyone deserves a home and that she supports this bill. That was huge.”
Jeffreys hoped that the momentum would carry over to last night’s hearing on one of the bills before the House Finance Committee.
Jean Johnson, the executive director of House of Hope, agrees that support from the General Assembly will be key to fixing the homelessness problem.
“The only way we can end the problem is to provide affordable housing, but we can’t build it all,” said Johnson in a phone interview. She added that supporting the two bills should be a “no-brainer” for state officials.
The proposed rental vouchers would serve as the first step in Opening Doors Rhode Island, another project RICH is hoping to receive funding for. The goal of that proposal is to end chronic homelessness and homelessness for veterans in five years and to lower the number of homeless families and young people in 10 years.
“The system is stuck,” said Jeffreys. “The goal is to get people into permanent housing.”
She went on to say that the shelter system is designed to be temporary, but many people end up staying permanently because there is nowhere else for them to go. Jeffreys knows of people who have been living in Cranston’s Harrington Hall for five years.
“We need to stop having shelters become permanent housing,” she said.
Someone who sees the homelessness issue firsthand is Patti Macreading, the executive director of the Rhode Island Family Shelter. The Warwick-based shelter is supposed to serve as an emergency shelter and crisis response facility. There are 10 bedrooms in the shelter and, according to Macreading, they are filled almost every night.
On an average night, she says there will be 30 to 40 people sleeping in the shelter, half of whom are children.
“Rents are just too high for anyone on their own,” said Macreading, adding that it is easier to stay in a shelter or supportive housing.
Johnson said that 114 men spent Sunday night at the 80-bed men’s shelter in Cranston. She said the women’s shelter is also always full.
“As the winter shelters begin to close, we expect our numbers to grow,” she said.
In addition to the emergency shelter, Rhode Island Family Shelter runs Beach House Apartments, seven individual living spaces that are run as permanent supportive housing. In the past three months, Macreading and her team have been able to move four families into that upstairs area.
“We’ve been very fortunate,” she said.
However, according to Johnson, all 18 properties supported by House of Hope, which range from emergency shelters to independent rentals, are at full capacity. Johnson says her permanent supportive housing has an 85 percent success rate of moving people from homelessness to independence.
Macreading explained that permanent supportive housing allows for families to live in their own apartments and work with a case manager. Case managers help people create a budget, make individual plans, make referrals for other types of housing, find jobs and other services. Macreading said rent for permanent supportive housing costs 30 percent of one’s income.
At one point, the Rhode Island Family Shelter was looking to expand to more buildings, but the funding was not there.
“We’d be looking at a $4 million project,” said Macreading.
Instead, Macreading hopes to expand her own building to include non-supportive housing. She said non-supportive housing would still cost 30 percent of one’s income but would not include the help of a case manager. It would allow for more independence but still be affordable.
Statewide, the number of homeless has increased 10.4 percent in the past year, and there are an estimated 4,868 Rhode Islanders without a home.