According to the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless (RICH), Warwick has seen a 37 percent increase in former Warwick residents without a place to call home.
To measure homelessness by city, Dr. Eric Hirsh explained homeless people are asked where their last permanent address was. For the calendar year 2012, 235 individuals said Warwick, compared to 172 in 2011.
“I think we are finally seeing the results of the recession,” said Hirsh, a sociology professor at Providence College and chair of the Homeless Management Information System Committee.
He went on to explain that when many people lose their homes they first turn to friends and family. After a few years, however, those resources can run out and they turn instead to the shelter system.
“The system is stuck,” said Karen Jeffreys of RICH in a phone interview. She explained that even when people have an income and have a job, it is still not enough to cover rent in the state.
“They need a rental they can afford,” said Jeffreys. She added that Rhode Island has one of the highest rental costs in the country, averaging $945 a month for a two-bedroom.
“The only way we can end the problem is to provide affordable housing. But we can’t build it all,” said Jean Johnson, executive director of House of Hope.
While releasing the numbers at a “Wizard of Oz” themed event at the State House last week, RICH and other advocates hoped to convince state legislators 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.
“We got a very positive reaction from representatives and senators alike,” she said. “The Munchkins went to see Senator Pavia Weed, and she said everyone deserves a home and that she supports this bill. That was huge.”
Jeffreys was hopeful that positive momentum would continue at yesterday’s hearing before the House Financial Committee.
The proposed rental vouchers are an important resource for families looking for an affordable home. “Wages have not kept up with rent. Even getting income doesn’t make it easy to get housing,” said Jeffreys.
The vouchers also serve as the first step in Opening Doors Rhode Island, another project supported by RICH. The goal of that proposal is to end chronic homelessness and homelessness of veterans in five years and to lower the number of homeless families and young people in 10 years.
Jeffreys said the shelter system was designed to be temporary but many people end up staying permanently because there is truly nowhere else for them to go. She knows of people who have been living in Harrington Hall, a local shelter, for five years.
“We need to stop having shelters become permanent housing,” said Jeffreys.
Patti Macreading, the executive director of the Rhode Island Family Shelter sees the problem first hand. The shelter is designed to serve as an emergency shelter and crisis response. There are 10 bedrooms and, according to Macreading, they are filled every night. She says an average of 30 to 40 people total will spend the night at their facility, and half are usually children.
“Rents are just too high for anyone on their own,” said Macreading.
Johnson sees the problem at House of Hope properties as well; she said 114 men spent Sunday night at the 80-bed men’s shelter in Cranston. She said the women’s shelter in Warwick is also always full.
“As the winter shelters begin to close, we expect our numbers to grow.”
Macreading’s goal is to get individuals out of the shelters and into permanent housing, but public housing wait lists across the state are closed and many have waits of up to four years.
“Even when housing becomes available, they may only have a window of two or three hours to apply,” said Macreading. She added that people on waiting lists are not just from Rhode Island but from across the country.
According to Johnson, all 18 properties supported by House of Hope, ranging from emergency shelters to independent rentals, are also at full capacity.
Johnson has found success with House of Hope’s permanent supportive housing, which she says has an 85 percent success rate in 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 to 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.
Macreading hopes to expand her own building to include non-supportive housing in the future. Non-supportive housing would still cost 30 percent of one’s income but would not include the help of a case manager, allowing for more independence.
Statewide, the number of homeless has increased 10.4 percent, and there is a total of 4,868 Rhode Islanders without a home as opposed to 4,410 in 2011.