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R.I. homelessness was on the rise before COVID-19, HUD report says

Advocates, academics describe worsening crisis since onset of pandemic, some progress

By
Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The rising homelessness rate was a crisis, even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There was a 4.6 percent increase in homelessness in Rhode Island from 2019 to 2020 according to part one of the 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment, which the Department of Housing and Urban Development delivered to Congress March 18.

Many of the trends shown in the data of the PIT Count were unsurprising to advocates in the area. 

“We’ve been seeing an increase in homelessness and unsheltered homelessness (of) a few people at a time every year,” said Angelina Denomme, communication and engagement coordinator at the R.I. Coalition for the Homeless. “It goes up and up and up, and it hasn’t seemed to plateau or go down in recent history.”

For Annelise Ernst ’21, co-director of student group Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere, increasing homelessness in R.I. is part of a larger trend nationally. “We have a shelter system, we have an affordable housing waitlist, we have things that are said to be helping folks,” she said. “However, it’s one thing to view these things as apparent and accessible, (but) in reality … they’re not.” 

One statistic that stood out to Adjunct Lecturer of Anthropology Irene Glasser was that the rate of unsheltered homelessness surpassed sheltered homelessness nationally. But in R.I. the majority of people who are without children and homeless are living in shelters, not outdoors. 

According to Glasser, who teaches ANTH 1301: “Anthropology of Homelessness,” the difference between the Ocean State and the nation as a whole may indicate that R.I. shelters are “not throwing a lot of people out” or “perhaps people feel more safe in them.”

While the 2020 data represents a clear homelessness crisis, the data does not include those who have experienced homelessness since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, hiding the extent to which the situation has worsened in recent months, according to Denomme.

“Because of COVID we’ve had to congregate shelters, so shelters are operating at a lower capacity,” Denomme said. At the same time, increasing demand due to evictions and economic strain has created further difficulty in shelter capacity, she added.

With the pandemic, “it’s a crisis within a crisis,” Ernst said. 

At the same time, places like libraries, soup kitchens and restaurants, have had to resort to just “handing out bagged lunches,” closing and limiting entry, Glasser said. “I think that was really difficult for people who are homeless because there were so few places to be inside during the day … where people can get warm and use the bathroom.”

To facilitate the annual HUD report, staff members and volunteers for the R.I. Coalition for the Homeless collect data every January by going out to “places not meant for human habitation,” according to Denomme. The data is then moved to the Homeless Management Information System, at which point it is sent to HUD after review, she added. 

This data constitutes the yearly Point-in-Time Count, which offers a “snapshot in time … of exactly what happened on that night,” Denomme said. “Those numbers are used to generalize throughout the entire year, but (the number of) people experiencing homelessness fluctuates, so … it’s kind of like our reference point,” she added. 

But some argue that the PIT falls short as a general measure for homelessness. 

While the PIT Count “is a worthwhile endeavor,” Ernst said, it “misses out on a lot of people that don’t necessarily meet the criteria of what is officially considered homelessness.”

According to Glasser, the PIT Count misses one fundamental number: the doubled-up homeless population. 

“For many people, before they actually go to a shelter, or certainly before they start living outside, they try to live with other people, and this is called the doubled-up homeless population,” Glasser said.

Apart from the PIT Count, there are other estimates that, when viewed together, could be more representative of the population experiencing homelessness, Glasser said, mentioning the R.I. Coalition for the Homeless’s annual count as a “tremendous” source of data in comparison to the PIT Count.

Despite recent increases in homelessness, there have been “some small amounts of progress” toward combating the issue, according to Ernst. 

One such measure is the Bill H5257, Denomme said, which passed the R.I. House of Representatives in March. H5257 prohibits a landlord from denying a renter based on their source of income, whether that be disability benefits, child support money or otherwise.

Glasser also identified eviction prevention through measures such as rental assistance as especially important in the fight against homelessness. 

Despite the pandemic’s effect on homelessness, “there’s some real hope on the horizon,” Glasser said, mentioning the efforts of Newport County Mental Health, which “rented some hotel rooms and motel rooms to house people” during the pandemic.

Glasser asked, “if we can find housing for people for a few months during this public health crisis, why can’t we do this on a more permanent basis?”

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  1. Why doesn’t Brown open its dorms to the homeless? How about housing 1,000 homeless Rhode Islanders.
    Current students can stay in hotels.

    • Never True says:

      That would make sense, right? Apparently Brown is guilty of all sorts of heinous crimes (e.g. slavery, colonialism, white supremacy, cultural appropriation, genocide, Roman statues, gentrification, destroying historical neighborhoods, etc.) so I am surprised that the problem of homelessness in the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations hasn’t been included in the list of bad things that Brunonia needs to start atoning for.

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