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Panel surveys Providence homelessness crisis

Panelists stress importance of ensuring homeless people’s dignity, access to employment

Outreach workers examined issues that homeless people in Providence struggle with on a daily basis, such as employment prospects and police discrimination, at a panel Wednesday night. Approximately 40 students attended the event, which was held in Wilson Hall 102 and hosted by Health Leads Providence and Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere, a program run by the Swearer Center for Public Service that allows students to engage in advocacy efforts related to homeless populations.

The panel opened with a discussion of the systemic causes of homelessness in the United States. The country’s homeless population quadrupled from the 1970s to the 1980s due to “an increase in income inequality and a lack of government action,” said Eric Hirsch, professor of sociology at Providence College.

“The homelessness problem is alive and not so well,” said Barbara Kalil, co-director of the Rhode Island Housing Advocacy Project.

The government institutionalized homelessness, said Hirsch, who works for the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless which aims to end veteran homelessness by the end of the month and chronic homelessness by the end of 2016, according to its website.

Homeless people in the 1970s and the 1980s had to go through two-year programs to be deemed capable of living in a permanent home, Hirsch said. This program and mandatory classes were meant to ensure that participants were “clean and sober,” he said.

But homeless people seeking permanent homes should not be met with “hoops to jump through,” he said. There should be “very low barriers to get into housing,” and those accepted into permanent housing should be supported financially, he added.

Kate Miechkowski, an outreach worker at House of Hope, highlighted the Homeless Bill of Rights passed by Rhode Island’s General Assembly, which protects people from housing-status-based discrimination. Police officers discriminate against homeless people by mistreating them on the streets and threatening to arrest them without cause, she said.

John Freitas, outreach coordinator for RIHAP, noted an instance during the winter in which a police officer told him not to worry about the homeless people he was reaching out to because,“by the end of the night they’ll be popsicles.”

Kalil and Freitas were homeless together for six years. They are now advocates for an end to the homelessness crisis. Some people “try to dehumanize us,” Freitas said. “Restoring dignity — that’s the best medicine.”

In the question-and-answer session that followed the panel discussion, employment prospects emerged as a focal point of conversation. Several panelists agreed that a problem facing homeless people trying to obtain jobs is that they must bring their backpacks — which hold their life’s belongings ­— with them at all times.

Freitas proposed that a daytime center be created where homeless people could lock up their belongings before attending interviews.

“They become the invisible people,” Kalil said. “We look the other way and pretend they’re not there.”

The panelists emphasized the significance of daytime activities like employment in homeless people’s lives. “They want to feel normal again. They want to feel human,” Kalil said.



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