The Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless and other advocates for the homeless reported yesterday a 9 percent decline in the overall homeless population in Rhode Island, the first decline reported since 2007.
Advocates, current and former homeless constituents and other allies gathered at the State House to release the 2013 data, launch the new State House Project Homeless Connect program, and call for the General Assembly to maintain or increase funding to programs they credit the decline to.
But while the statistics tell one story, what one local agency is seeing would indicate the news, although encouraging, should not be taken as an indication that homelessness is a problem on the wane.
Before Patti Macreading became executive director of the Rhode Island Family Shelter based in Conimicut some years ago, the average length of stay at the shelter was three to six weeks. By that time shelter tenants were able to find housing whether it was moving in with a friend or relative or locating affordable housing.
“That’s when the economy was better,” Macreading said yesterday. “I just don’t see that happening yet.”
Now, the average length of stay is three to six months. She said finding affordable housing is especially difficult and the waiting list of families looking to locate in the shelter shows no sign of diminishing.
She said the waiting list, which rarely dips below 50 families, is currently at 80 families.
Given the need, Macreading said, “we could be full all the time.”
Shelter tenants are required to either be looking for a job, working or in an educational program. Macreading points out that this is a different group from the individual street homeless who are served by the House of Hope, also based in Warwick. The House of Hope operates Harrington Hall in Cranston. Harrington Hall houses more than 80 homeless men nightly. In addition, the House of Hope runs a number of houses providing care for families and affordable housing.
Macreading said because of government programs the individual homeless population is declining. Families continue to be in need, a possible reflection of the fact that they are remaining in the system so much longer.
Yet, overall the picture has improved.
According to the coalition report, the total number of homeless in Rhode Island decreased from 4,868 in 2012 to 4,447 in 2013. There were also the following decreases in the population of children, families and veterans experiencing homelessness:
Chair of the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) Committee Dr. Eric Hirsch, a Providence College professor, announced the statistics, attributing the decrease to a recovering economy and the system finally seeing the benefits of Opening Doors Rhode Island, the state’s plan to end homelessness.
“In addition to creating better outcomes for those Rhode Islanders experiencing homelessness, housing our homeless makes good, sound fiscal sense,” explained Hirsch in a press release. “My research shows a cost savings of $10,000 for the typical Medicaid user who was homeless once they become stabilized with housing.”
The Coalition for the Homeless executive director, Jim Ryczek, was pleased to be able to announce the decrease in the homeless population but reminded legislators that there is still work to do.
“We are thrilled to see positive movement towards our vision of a state that houses its citizens that have experienced homelessness, rather than simply sheltering them,” stated Ryczek in a press release. “We have long known how to end homelessness in our state, but we have needed the funding to make it a reality. This legislative session can build on last year’s success by supporting legislation that continues to fund solutions.”
While there was a great deal of good news to share in terms of the homeless population yesterday, the population of the chronic homeless are still facing problems; according to the data, the most chronic, long-term homeless individuals are staying in state shelters longer. However, the silver lining is that recent rental vouchers approved by the Legislature (totaling $750,000) has led 125 of the most chronic homeless to the process of being housed.
“Housing has improved the quality of life for many formerly chronic homeless Rhode Islanders,” explained Vickie Walters, associate director of Residential and Home Base for the Providence Center, one of the agencies that received the new rental voucher funding. “Housing is an essential innovation. Housing with appropriate services provides stability and the base for improving overall heath. It enables folks to become positive, active participants in the world and enables people to reconnect with their family.”
In addition to the Annual Statistics announcement, advocates were on hand to launch State House Project Homeless Connect, a new weekly event hosted at the State House to connect Rhode Island’s homeless with services they need such as health care, housing search, legal assistance, public benefits, case workers, veterans assistance and more.
Project Homeless Connect is part of a national movement of single, one-stop service events organized by state and city governments, along with community organizations. In fact, according to the release, Project Homeless Connect is identified by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness as an innovation that mobilizes civic will to end homelessness.
This program will be held every Wednesday at the State House until the end of this year’s legislative session from 3 to 5 p.m. to provide the homeless community with food, medical services, benefit and job assistance, identification documents, haircuts and other daily necessities, and links to housing. The long-term goal, however, is to encourage legislators to support the complete funding of Opening Doors RI by allowing elected officials to see the need firsthand.
“Ending homelessness in our state is not a pipe dream,” explained Ryczek. “It is a reality that is within our reach, within our lifetime. We must continue to summon the political and public will to make it so.”
Opening Doors RI outlines a plan to “sharply decrease the numbers of people experiencing homelessness and the length of time people spend homeless.” The plan aims to end chronic homelessness and homelessness among veterans in five years, and end homelessness among families and young people in 10 years.