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Rhode Island's homeless rates top charts, shelters hit limits

In the month of March, Rhode Island saw the largest number of people without a home since 1985, when it began keeping track, said Jim Ryczek, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless.

Ryczek's organization has noted a steady increase in the amount of homeless people checking into shelters over the past two years. Numbers are especially high during the winter months, when most shelters are open and people without a bed are in most need. In March 2010 there were 1,283 registered homeless in the state, up from 996 in February 2008, according to the coalition's records. This is the highest level ever recorded.

"We would tend to see the lowest numbers in the summer months," Ryczek said, but not in the past four years. This "is an indicator that there are more people in the system," he added, since it is usually the newly-dispossessed who seek aid from shelters.

The considerable increase in the homeless population can partially be attributed to the recent foreclosure crisis, which hit Rhode Island very hard, Ryczek said. The subsequent rise in unemployment "has caused a lot of people to fall off the economy horse and enter the shelter system," he added.

Indeed, the coalition estimated that shelter check-ins have increased by 300 percent because of the crisis, Ryczek said. Most of the shelters' new members are not previous property owners, he said, but renters whose landlords have faced foreclosure. 

In fact, while families have three days to vacate a housing unit after the notice of eviction, landlords are not obliged to notify these renters of the risk of foreclosure, he said. Ryczek noted that this has a very damaging effect, because people often do not have time to find alternate housing.

Shelters under stress
Increased demand has forced St. Paul's shelter to lead a more aggressive fundraising campaign this year, said Sheryl Marshall, program director for Access Rhode Island, the organization that runs the shelter. So far, "we've survived through donations and community involvement," Marshall said, "but we need more."

Access Rhode Island is an organization that is "set up to do intensive case-management for the Providence homeless," Marshall said. Their operations include connecting the homeless to resources, finding housing and applying for social security, she said. The organization also runs the emergency shelter in St. Paul's church, open annually from November to April.

The group usually obtains funding from a variety of sources. "We get about a third of it from the state and some from the city, but we have to piece it together to make it work," Marshall said. This year, extra funding will allow St. Paul's shelter to stay open for two more months, she added. Since there are definitely more homeless in the system, this will be very helpful, Marshall said, but the true numbers will only be known once shelters close for the summer.

The unusually high level of homelessness hasn't affected the organization's case-management service, Marshall said, as eligibility for the program requires individuals to have been homeless either for a year, or four times in the past three years.

The state has been trying to accommodate these new developments and alleviate the plight of the homeless. State officials recently allocated an extra $90,000 to organizations for the homeless, Ryczek said. This has allowed the coalition to stagger summer shelter closings, he added, as well as render more efficient the transportation system to and from these shelters.

"The Providence metropolitan area has the vast majority of our homeless population," Ryczek said, estimating that between a third and a half of the state's homeless live within city bounds. There are two reasons for this, he said. Because there are simply more people living in the city, there are also more homeless. What is more, because smaller towns are less likely to have facilities or shelters to aid the homeless, individuals or families who lose their house often come to Providence or Pawtucket.

Looking long-term
"We don't like shelters — we look for permanent solutions, not temporary ones," Ryczek said. Permanent housing is not only a more attractive solution for the dispossessed, it is also a considerably cheaper option, he added. The state saves approximately $8,000 for every person in permanent housing rather than in a shelter, he said.

But such a fundamental shift in the homeless system towards more permanent solutions requires initial capital, Ryczek said. He said legislators up for election in November are less likely to vote for long-term investments rather than options that yield quick results. As things stand, "the regular shelters have become permanent housing for many," Ryczek said, which is a problematic situation.

Indeed, the Coalition for the Homeless is currently focusing on the maintenance of the Neighborhood Opportunities Program, which aims to provide the homeless with permanent housing solutions, Ryczek said.

The program serves a double function, Ryczek said. It funds the construction of new units of housing and it pays for some of the ‘operating support' of the buildings, which include utility costs among other things. Homeless residents usually pay for a third of their living costs. The program represents a concerted effort to implement a long-term plan to combat homeless levels in the state, he said.

The Housing First program, a permanent-housing solution operation run by River Wood Mental Health Services, currently houses about 130 people and has a 90 percent success rate in finding its residents permanent housing, Ryczek said. In the long term, this is much more successful in aiding the homeless population than short-term housing solutions, he added.

But current levels of state funding do not address the situation completely. The Neighborhood Opportunities Program saw a recent $5 million drop in funding, Ryczeck said, and its funding is not included in the governor's current budget proposal. The coalition is "fighting" to secure funding for the program, he added.

"The resources are stretched to the limit," Ryczek said. "Our providers are having to stretch the same amount of dollars over a greater amount of folks." A ‘bottleneck' scenario has developed, and the coalition cannot provide the chronically homeless with enough places to stay, he said.

"My biggest fear is that this will become the status quo, and nobody will care," Ryczek said. Faced with fewer and fewer prospects of assistance, the homeless "may just go off the grid and hide — literally in tents," he said.



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