Brown students who go for a night out at Fish Co. may notice a sign that reads "No Trespassing Per Court Order" in front of a grassy area just across the street. A few weeks ago, this area underneath an old I-195 overpass was home to a community of 80 homeless people.
The community – known as Camp Runamuck — received much attention over the summer after it was the subject of a New York Times cover storyRhode Island's Homeless . Many of the former residents of Camp Runamuck have fallen on hard times this past year as Rhode Island's unemployment rate climbed to 12.7 percent, a record for the state and the second highest in the country after Michigan.
Over the summer, state officials informed the group that they would soon be required to leave the area. Under an agreement with state officials, residents agreed to vacate Camp Runamuck by Sept. 8. Now, they have fanned out across the city, taking up residence in a number of parks and abandoned lots.
While Camp Runamuck no longer exists as a vivid, nearby reminder of the true scope of the recession, many of the people who once lived there are no less in need of help. And given Rhode Island's economic troubles, Brown students should feel a heightened sense of obligation to assist the homeless and other struggling members of the local community.
According to the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, 6,423 Rhode Islanders stayed at homeless shelters during 2008. This number will undoubtedly be higher for 2009. The Coalition also reports that shelter use was 43 percent higher in February 2009 than in February 2008.
Of course, the homeless who stay at shelters represent only a portion of the total homeless population. A recent article in the Providence Journal reported that a homeless man named Richard Kilburn was found on Monday night bludgeoned to death as he slept in the doorway of a building on Broad Street. Kilburn had previously been kicked out of a shelter after he repeatedly broke the its rules forbidding smoking.
Brown students are strongly encouraged to work with the homeless and help improve their situation. The start of the school year will hopefully bring an influx of new and committed volunteers to the Swearer Center's HOPE (Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere) program and the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless.
In considering the problem of homelessness, it is easy to point to policy solutions like increasing the quality and quantity of homeless shelters, and providing job opportunities and affordable housing. But many people become homeless as a result of a complex web of interrelated difficulties and misfortunes. As a result, the problems that homeless people face also require individualized attention and sustained commitment.
The challenge for Brown students is not simply to get involved in the cause of homelessness, but to devote the requisite level of attention and effort needed to solve the kinds of problems that the homeless face. In these difficult economic times — and with winter just a few months away — this challenge is one that cannot be forgotten or ignored.
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