On Monday evening, a candlelight vigil was held at the Arctic Gazebo in West Warwick to honor the life of Joseph Graham, who was found dead on the side of the road in Warwick. Homeless at the time of his death, affordable housing advocates used Graham’s story to call for more support to end homelessness.
Over 75 community members, family members, affordable housing advocates and homeless and formerly homeless constituents attended Monday’s vigil to remember Graham, a West Warwick native who died unexpectedly on April 8. No cause of death has been determined.
Graham’s death marked the second death of someone living on the streets in a month period. Although no deaths of homeless individuals were reported during the brutal winter, the deaths of Graham and Michael Bourque in Newport in March are reminders that there are dangers year-round for the homeless.
“Homelessness is a 12-month a year crisis,” said Barbara Kalil, co-director of the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project (RIHAP) and a member of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless’ Statewide Outreach Committee, in a press release. “People can still die on the streets in warm weather just like in the cold winter months. The good news is we can avoid these tragedies. There is a solution; it is called affordable housing.”
According to a press release, the Coalition’s Statewide Outreach Committee decided at the start of 2014 that a candlelight vigil would be held for every individual who died homeless while outside to “bring visibility to the fact of Rhode Islanders dying on the streets.”
Monday’s vigil for Graham featured many special moments including a song by Newport Police Officer Jimmy Winters, a long-time advocate for Rhode Island’s homeless and founder of the Housing Hotline.
Mike Carley, a West Warwick resident and lawyer who knew Graham since childhood also took some time to speak at the vigil.
“Joseph was a good man, a spiritual man who had great compassion for people and animals. I don’t want his homelessness to define who he was as a person,” said Carley.
Advocates for the homeless point out the newest figures show a decrease in the number of homeless Rhode Islanders, proof that things can get better. According to the 2013 Annual Statistics, the total number of homeless decreased nine percent from 4,868 in 2012 to 4,447 in 2013. There were also decreases in the homeless children, families and veterans populations.
The decrease is attributed to both a recovering economy and the system finally seeing the benefits of Opening Doors Rhode Island, the state’s plan to end homelessness by transforming services provided to the homeless and decreasing the homeless population and the length of time someone is homeless.
Legislative funding of permanent supportive housing has also contributed to the decline, according to advocates. Thanks to the recent funding of $750,000 in rental vouchers by the General Assembly, 125 homeless are in the process of being housed. The coalition and other advocates are now urging the General Assembly to build on that success by continuing to support legislation addressing these issues.
“Our message tonight is that we can do better,” said Don Coucher, assistant executive director for Riverwood Mental Health Services in the press release. “What is maddening about this situation is that it is avoidable. We know how to tackle these problems of homelessness, addiction, substance abuse – we know what to do, we have the models, yet we continue to lack the public and political will to demand that we implement and fund those models.”
Monday’s vigil ended with candles lit at sunset with Winters playing music.