Addressing homeless problem the wrong way

Posted 1/25/23

To the Editor,

Most Rhode Islanders agree that homelessness, or “the unhoused,” as some politically correct folks prefer to call the homeless, is indeed a problem in the Ocean …

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Addressing homeless problem the wrong way


To the Editor,

Most Rhode Islanders agree that homelessness, or “the unhoused,” as some politically correct folks prefer to call the homeless, is indeed a problem in the Ocean State.  While the homeless encampment outside the State House received widespread attention, there continue to exist other encampments throughout the state.  And let’s not forget about the homeless living in cars or camping out on friends’ and relatives’ couches.  It’s certainly a problem that needs to be solved, especially when children are involved.

Many outstanding non-profit organizations have been addressing the homeless problem for decades.  Crossroads Rhode Island, Amos House, Covenant House, Community Care Alliance, and many other groups are dedicated to helping the homeless and are doing magnificent work with little or no taxpayer assistance.

Now Governor Dan McKee is trying to address the homelessness problem in the state budget.  While it’s admirable that he is attempting to ameliorate the problem, he is clearly going about it in the wrong way.

As he should, the governor wants to spend the $250 million our state received in federal ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds as soon as possible to dramatically reduce homelessness in Rhode Island.  It’s how he is approaching the problem that is itself a problem.       

McKee’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year includes a provision to hire 38 staffers for the newly minted RI Department of Housing.  These new state employees will figure out how to spend the quarter billion dollars in ARPA funds.  The problem is that the governor plans to spend $182 million next year to dispense the $250 million.

While the $250 million in ARPA funds is a one-time federal infusion of cash that will not be given out again, the $182 million to staff the housing department will be an annual expense that, like almost every other addition to the budget, will go on forever at state taxpayer expense.

From an operational, business or financial perspective, it just doesn’t make sense to fund an overhead that equals 73 percent of total revenue intended to fix a problem--$182M overhead to  distribute $250M in assistance.  In what world does that happen?  A private business would go belly-up in short order if its overhead was so costly. 

And we all know that, like all government entities, the new housing department will grow and become more costly year after year.  Yet federal money sent to states for housing assistance will not grow.  So, who foots the future bills?  Rhode Island taxpayers, of course.

Most taxpayers in our little state are okay with adding some dollars to their tax bills to address the homelessness problem.  But $182 million per year and growing just for the department that disburses housing money, before a penny is spent to address homelessness?  That’s way out of whack!

Surely, a department of ten or twelve could figure out how to effectively dispense the current $250 million windfall at a cost of $60 million or so--a fairly high 24 percent overhead expense, but far better than the currently planned 73 percent cost. 

Thereafter, the size of the department should be maintained strictly in accordance with the amount of money the governor and legislature budget for housing assistance--e.g., the ratio of overhead to revenue distributed should never exceed a reasonable percentage. 

If only $100 million is budgeted the year after the $250M ARPA funds have been spent, then the downsized housing staff should be reduced even further; to a point where at least 75 percent of that $100M would actually go to helping the homeless instead of to state employee salaries.

Let’s run our state somewhat like a business; not like an organization that has unlimited money to spend.  We need to recruit more people from profitable private companies to show our bureaucrats how to run organizations effectively. 

If someone with demonstrated business acumen were running the state, someone like gubernatorial candidate Helena Foulkes for example, we would not be spending $182 million to dispense $250 million.  It just doesn’t make sense!       

Lonnie Barham


Editor's Note;  Following publication of this letter, the governor's office called to clarify  how the $182 million is  allocated .Of the total,  $154 million is to be used for construction of the housing projects.

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