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R.I. officials confront homelessness

As temperatures plummeted during the month of January, Rhode Island policymakers turned their attention to the state's homeless population.

According to a report released by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the homeless population in Rhode Island increased 34 percent between 2008 and 2009. The number of people living with friends and family as a result of economic problems increased 89 percent, the report found.

Legislators at the State House held a series of hearings last month on homelessness in the state. Sen. John Tassoni, D-Smithfield, North Smithfield, chairman of the Committee on Housing and Municipal Government, visited the Harrington Hall shelter in Cranston prior to the hearings, where he said he did not "particularly care for" some things he saw there.

Tassoni said some aspects of life at Harrington Hall were "inhumane."  The 88 men who sleep there at night stay in one large, open room and do not have access to meals or adequate bathroom facilities in the shelter, he said. Tassoni said he intends to have some Harrington Hall residents speak at the next hearing, to be held today.

Tassoni proposed closing Harrington Hall and housing the men who stay there in a building formerly used as the state's correctional facility for juveniles.

"Those guys have to line up at three in the afternoon" to get a place in the shelter, Tassoni said.

"That's not America," he said, adding that he believed past policymakers prioritized "pet projects" over the well-being of the state's homeless population.

Homelessness is also a key issue for Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. Reed announced Jan. 19 that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would provide $4.7 million to 40 homeless assistance programs in Rhode Island. Since 2000, federal grants have brought more than $51 million to state homelessness programs.

With sub-zero temperatures in mid-January, shelters such as Crossroads in Providence "saw more people coming in for emergency shelter than we have in months," said Karen Santilli, vice president of marketing and development for Crossroads. Other emergency shelters in the city are experiencing the same increase in numbers, she said.  

The homelessness situation in Rhode Island has been exacerbated by the lack of job availability and affordable housing, Santilli said.

Beth Caldwell '12, student coordinator of Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere, said the student-run organization is supporting local groups combatting homelessness like the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project and the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless in their efforts to provide adequate winter shelter.

"HOPE will work with these organizations to push the state assembly to create a permanent source of funding for the creation of low-income and affordable housing," she said.  

While HOPE "is very concerned about the immediate shelter crisis and will work to ensure that no one is left outside this winter, the group also sees shelters as a temporary necessity rather than the long-term solution to homelessness," Caldwell added.

During a state Senate committee hearing Jan. 20, Anthony Maione, president and CEO of United Way of Rhode Island, said the homelessness situation in the state is "worse than we have ever seen." He stressed the need for long-term housing for the state's homeless population, citing the success of programs such as Housing First and the Neighborhood Opportunity Program. As it stands, openings in shelters are scarce, he said, adding that the United Way received 61,000 calls for assistance relating to housing, foreclosure and emergency shelter.

Tassoni urged those present at the hearing to consider what he called the "Worcester Model" to house Rhode Island's homeless.   

In late 2009, Worcester, Mass. implemented a new screening process for homeless people attempting to stay at the local People in Peril Shelter. Workers at a triage center attempted to divert them from the shelter by helping them move in with family or friends or to a familiar community. The program also involves a substantial increase in resources and support for the city's homeless and emphasizes placing the homeless in long-term housing.

In Worcester, the plan to end chronic homelessness has proven so successful that the city is planning to close the People in Peril Shelter.

Tassoni said he is looking to implement a version of the "Worcester Model" as a long-term remedy for homelessness in Rhode Island. He noted that Worcester is around the same size as Rhode Island and, with modifications, Tassoni said he believes the plan will be effective.  

"We're headed in the right direction," he said.


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