Rhode Island has enjoyed a warm autumn, but the approach of winter has caused the state to increase the number of beds at homeless shelters — a measure that advocates for the state's growing homeless population say won't be enough.
Homeless shelters in Westerly, Woonsocket, Pawtucket and Providence now have 88 additional beds, which will remain until spring, said Noreen Shawcross, the head of the state's Office of Housing and Community Development. The state is funding 58 of the beds, while the Diocese of Providence and the United Way are providing the remaining 30. Statewide, there are about 610 emergency beds for the homeless, Shawcross said.
The state provides additional beds annually when colder weather approaches.
"We're always trying to keep up with the need," Shawcross said, adding that the ultimate goal is to find people housing.
But according to a count conducted Oct. 29 by the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, there will be a deficit of 79 beds, even with the extra resources. The count, intended to identify the numbersof people on the street at a particular point in time, found that shelters were over capacity by 36 and 131 people were sleeping outside, said Jim Ryczek, the group's executive director.
According to the coalition's data, the state's homeless population has been growing — the number of people using emergency services increased from 925 in October 2008 to 1,518 this October — so the deficit is likely to grow, Ryczek said.
The coalition held a press conference and rally last week to alert the state to the shortage and is waiting for a response to a letter requesting a meeting with the governor.
"At a basic level, we'd like them to acknowledge that it is an emergency," Ryczek said. The coalition also wants the governor "to take the lead on helping us solve the problem," he said.
In order to make up the deficit, the state would need to find more space to put beds in order to comply with fire co
Shawcross said an emergency shelter task force is meeting to plan for the winter, and is searching for more space and more funding. The task force includes members from her office, homeless advocate groups, service providers and homeless people, she said.
Calling it a "challenging situation," Shawcross added that Rhode Island is one of a few states able to provide shelter for its homeless population.
"Times are bad and there are a lot of desperate people," she said.