Historic house offers new life for homeless


The House of Hope CDC celebrated opening the George Galen Wheeler House at a public ribbon cutting ceremony in Pawtuxet Village Monday morning. Built in 1875, and located at 57 Fair Street in the historic district, the Wheeler House, which had previously been serving as a transitional emergency shelter, will now provide five homes to formerly homeless people with disabilities. Executive Director of the House of Hope Jean Johnson headlined a group of speakers that concluded with words from new Wheeler House resident Bobby Lauro.

“If it wasn’t for House of Hope, I wouldn’t be standing here today,” said Lauro, a rehabilitated former drug addict, who in just a short period of time has gone from living in his car to a beautiful three-room apartment at Wheeler House. “I just can’t imagine not having this place. What would I do without a place to lay my head?”

“We have beaten the odds and restored 57 Fair Street back to its historical significance,” continued Johnson. “It is now ready to provide permanent, affordable housing for individuals who were once languishing in our shelter system.”

Yet while the mood in Pawtuxet was generally celebratory, many raised concerns about the lack of future funding to continue projects like Wheeler House.

“Three of the five sources that funded this project have been cut or reduced,” said Executive Director of Rhode Island Housing Richard Godfrey. “The future of Rhode Island Housing is in jeopardy and we are yielding ourselves to the budget ax because we aren’t telling our story well enough. We have a president who cares; in this tent we have people who get it, but we aren’t spreading our message well enough. We have to go beyond the tent.”

“Recovery doesn’t happen by accident,” added Craig Stenning, chief executive director of the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals.

“It happens when people have a roof over their head and a safe place to live. It’s a civil rights issue. Disabled people have a right to live and participate in their community.”

The $1.329 million renovation and reconstruction of Wheeler House was funded by Housing and Urban Development (HUD) section 811, Building Homes Rhode Island (BHRI), Thresholds, HOME, and the city of Warwick. Three of those five organizations have recently been either cut back or eliminated.

“I’m always telling Rhode Island stories because we know how to get it done,” said Barbara Fields, New England Regional Administrator, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “But I have to point out that this project was funded by [HUD] 811 and Congress just decided to eliminate it.”

HUD 811, a grant program for supportive housing for persons with disabilities, contributed over $724,000 to the Wheeler House project. HUD 811 was just discontinued. BHRI, a 2006 voter-approved $50 million bond that played a key role in the creation of over 1,200 affordable homes and supported more than 6,100 jobs, ran out of bond money in 2010. Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee has included a proposal for a new $25 million housing bond in his FY13 budget. The city of Warwick remains a strong force, contributing $33,180 to the project in the form of a community development block grant. But the future for many of the other programs is uncertain.

Michelle Brophy, director, New England Program, Corporation for Supportive Housing/Interagency Council on Homelessness, seemed to sum up the attitude of many. “This nation is founded on exceptionalism,” Brophy said. “In order to achieve this we must hold ourselves to a higher standard.”

“It is time for America to reinvest in its people,” added Godfrey.

The focus of the day was still a celebration of House of Hope’s latest achievement, despite 45 mile-per-hour winds that rattled the tent around on its cage, shaking the enclosure throughout the ceremony. The morning even featured a speech from St. Peter School 4th grader Tess Der Manouelian, who delivered a warm welcome to the community. She and her classmates also delivered five bags of food and other donations for each tenant courtesy of St. Peter School.

The project also received support from Trinity Church and Asbury United Methodist, who rendered similar types of assistance throughout the project, highlighting the Pawtuxet community’s willingness to embrace House of Hope.

“Many members of other communities did not want House of Hope there,” said Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian. “Now St. Peter’s welcomes them to the community. I am thrilled with what House of Hope has done and we have another property that we should talk about.”

Yet while the focus of the ceremony was on celebration, concerns about the budget, and questions about the future of Rhode Island housing, were still very much in the forefront.

“We have to get more people involved. We can’t just tell each other,” Godfrey stressed. “We have a mayor who cares, a governor who cares, and a president who cares. We have to tell our story better.”


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