Legislation addresses plight of homeless

Staff Writer
Thursday, February 23, 2012

As Rhode Island faces the highest rates of foreclosures in New England, legislators and activist groups are advancing affordable housing legislation and a homeless bill of rights intended to bring the state’s policy to combat homelessness up to par with the rest of the nation.

State Sen. John Tassoni Jr., D-Smithfield and North Smithfield, and state Rep. Scott Slater, D-Providence, have each introduced legislation to provide $12.5 million next year to the state-funded Neighborhood Opportunities Program, a program that aims to provide affordable housing to low-income individuals. NOP would use the funding to increase affordable housing for families, offer permanent, supportive housing for disabled individuals and provide grants for neighborhood revitalization.

The legislation would place a bond issue on the November election ballot that would provide $75 million to the Housing Resources Commission to fund NOP. Legislation requesting a $50 million bond issue to fund NOP passed “overwhelmingly” with Rhode Island voters in 2006, Tassoni said.

But over the last several years, NOP has received almost no funding, said Eric Hirsch, professor of sociology at Providence College and chair of the Homeless Management Information System Committee. The amount received last year — $1.5 million — is “completely inadequate,” he added.

“I think (Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14) is on board with the legislation,” Tassoni said. “We may not get what we’re looking for, but at least we’ll get something.”

Tassoni is also sponsoring a homeless bill of rights, introduced by Jim Ryczek, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, and John Joyce, co-director of the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project, to “guarantee that no person’s rights, privileges or access to public services will be denied or abridged solely because he or she is homeless,” as stated in the bill. State Rep. Chris Blazejewski, D-Providence and East Providence, is sponsoring an identical homeless bill of rights in the state House of Representatives.

These bills are currently under review in the Senate Committee on Housing & Municipal Government and the House Committee on Judiciary. They would guarantee additional rights for the homeless including use of public spaces, equal treatment by police, freedom from employer discrimination, access to decent and affordable housing and the same social services provided to all other Rhode Island citizens.

People normally attribute homelessness to personal failures, when it should be attributed to housing market failures, Hirsch said. Homeless people are just people who happen to be down on their luck, he said.

Hirsch said he would like to see large, congregate shelters like Harrington Hall, the state’s largest emergency shelter, replaced with permanent housing for the homeless. Putting homeless people in apartments and providing basic mental health and physical services, furniture and other necessities is cheaper and a far more humane response to homelessness, he said. “It’s morally necessary for us to close those shelters,” he added.

Though shelters are intended to provide for temporary crises, they have become permanent residences, housing some people for seven to eight years, Hirsch said. Leaving homeless people on the streets is expensive because they tend to use many uncompensated public services like hospitals, ambulance runs and nights in shelters, he added.

“Our system of providing housing has failed dramatically,” Hirsch said.

Ensuring access to services determines whether the homeless end up “integrating back into society,” said Benjamin Eichert ’13, a volunteer with Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere, a student-run program that serves and advocates for the homeless.

Housing is fundamental to “creating stability in other parts of people’s lives,” said Beth Caldwell ’12, a former coordinator for HOPE, noting that homelessness is a particular problem for women who have been victims of domestic violence.

There is a common misconception that homelessness exclusively affects drug abusers and the mentally ill, Eichert said. These categories represent 10 percent and 22 percent of the 2010 homeless population, respectively, while 39 percent were families, and 23 percent were children, according to Homeless Management Information System data. 

This is problematic because homeless children have difficulty succeeding in school, Eichert said. “I would like to see Brown broaden its commitment to the city and potentially make addressing the issue of homelessness — especially among school-age children — part of the work that it does with the community.”

Members of HOPE have been involved in advocating for increased NOP funding and the Homeless Bill of Rights, Caldwell said. They are also working with Direct Action for Rights and Equality to create legislation that would give tenants facing foreclosure greater rights, Caldwell said. To garner support for the legislation, the group has collected signatures in the home district of Speaker of the House Gordon Fox, D-Providence.

Rhode Island residents have faced a significant increase in the gap between average earnings and the cost of renting a home, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. About $50,000 in annual income is necessary to afford an apartment, meaning there are at least 150,000 households that cannot afford the market rate rents, Hirsch said. 

Despite these problems, Rhode Island is “only one of only nine states in the country that doesn’t have a dedicated funding stream for production of affordable housing,” Eichert said.

It is “really a shame that the state hasn’t been able to come together to successfully address this problem,” Eichert said, noting that many other states have proposed or successfully implemented legislation to manage homelessness.

A targeted investment in housing is the best way to create economic activity that transcends the recession, Hirsch said, adding that “the General Assembly needs to start thinking about how to make those investments and not simply look at ways to further cut the programs that could revive the economy.”