To the Editor:
Many Rhode Islanders – perhaps even most Rhode Islanders – are a missed paycheck or two away from homelessness. So it never ceases to amaze me how insensitive so many of us can be about the plight of the homeless in our state. Homeless individuals are not really all that different from those who have homes. They have needs and goals. They have families – many are children. Many have jobs. What they lack is a safe place to lay their heads down at night.
Crossroads Rhode Island has provided the following very stark statistics about homelessness in Rhode Island. From Jan. 1 through Nov. 30, Crossroads alone served 214 families in shelter. Those families included 385 children. During the same period in 2011, the organization served 159 families in shelter. In terms of shelter bed nights, this year there have been 26,294 compared to 11,291 in 2011. More than 50 percent of the families who turn to Crossroads have some income.
Clearly, things are not getting better. On just one night in the past week, Crossroads sheltered 17 families in a center designed for 15 families. They placed 19 additional families in nine emergency apartments, doubling and tripling up these individuals. There were an additional two families who slept on mats on the floor at Crossroads’ main facility. In addition to all those families, there were 19 families on the state’s waiting list for shelter.
The absence of a home does not justify being treated without dignity. The time is now for society to remove the stigma attached to homelessness and find ways to provide the services they want and need to help them get back on their feet.
A good first step would be to move those currently taking emergency overnight shelter at Harrington Hall into the vacant Gloria MacDonald Building nearby. Prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have better accommodations than those who take shelter at decrepit Harrington Hall. I commend Governor Chafee’s administration for improvements they have facilitated there, but it is not enough because of the very nature of the building. Rather than the one large, dormitory style room housing 100 beds at Harrington Hall, the Gloria MacDonald House could provide more private quarters. Separate rooms would provide more privacy and livability. It would also be more conducive to the delivery of treatment services that many homeless need, and help to prevent expensive visits to hospital emergency rooms.
With enactment of the Homeless Bill of Rights, Rhode Island is a national leader in formally recognizing that homeless individuals and families deserve the same rights and dignities as every citizen. It is my hope that we, as a society, will recognize the need to treat all of our fellow citizens with the same respect, and that Rhode Island will lead the way.
Sen. John J. Tassoni Jr.