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HOPE membership, influence grows in Rhode Island

Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere redesigns, distributes survey to homeless

Loud conversation and the smell of meatloaf baking filled the entryway of All Saints Memorial Church in downtown Providence Nov. 14. At the church every Tuesday, the hungry and homeless can find a free and freshly cooked dinner provided by nonprofit City Meal Site.

On that Tuesday night, the short, graying and flannel-clad Reverend Maryalice Sullivan greeted homeless and formerly homeless individuals. On their way out, the constituents were stopped by a few University students, who asked to discuss political advocacy for the homeless.

These students — members of the advocacy and outreach group Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere — were conducting the 2017 Government Relations Survey, which is used to determine high-priority legislative goals for homeless individuals. The GR survey has been used in past years to gather data for nonprofit groups that lobby for legislative action in the Rhode Island State House, said Gabriel Zimmerman ’18, co-director of HOPE.

The survey was formerly administered by the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, but reduced funding limited RICH’s capacity to conduct the survey this year, he added. As a result, HOPE volunteered to redesign and conduct the GR survey in order to ensure its continued existence. 

Redesigned survey tries to ask the right questions

“We’ve decided there are some changes we wanted to make to” the GR survey, Zimmerman said.

In redesigning the survey, the group changed the types of questions presented, said Morgan Talbot ’18, advocacy director for HOPE. Surveys in previous years have asked participants to identify the largest and most pressing issues facing homeless individuals, according to the 2016 survey. Access to affordable housing was the most pressing issue for almost half of those surveyed in 2016.

That pattern repeated itself in previous years, Talbot said, adding that it made the survey increasingly less useful in providing new information. “Part of the criticism of the survey in the past was that we tend to get some of the same responses every year,” he said.

“This year, we’re focusing much more on concrete legislative actions that have been discussed previously by advocacy groups,” Talbot added.

At All Saints Church Nov. 14, Talbot asked homeless individuals to choose three out of 10 possible legislative actions and prioritize them. Proposals on the list included making “it illegal for landlords to deny housing to someone based on source of income or having a Housing Choice (Section 8) Voucher” and funding “free child care for homeless families with children.” Other survey questions asked for ideas and opportunities not listed, as well as basic demographic information.

By the end of the night, Talbot, Zimmerman and other HOPE volunteers had collected roughly 20 surveys.

HOPE has made several other changes to the survey collection method this year. For example, the group now conducts data collection in Spanish, as well as other languages if possible.

In addition, surveys have been collected in other parts of Providence as well as Pawtucket, Cranston, Westerly and Woonsocket, and group members will travel to Newport and Middletown later this week, Zimmerman said.

By expanding the survey’s geographical range, HOPE has given advocacy groups a new asset in lobbying reluctant State House representatives. Non-profit groups and student activists hope to present representatives with data from their own districts and constituents, which should make lobbying more effective, said Will Gomberg ’20, one of two outreach coordinators for HOPE.

Legislative lobbying finds success

The group will analyze the data and present it to a meeting of non-profit groups at RICH’s headquarters in the coming weeks, Talbot said. The State House session begins in January and ends in June, and HOPE and other Rhode Island nonprofits will base their lobbying campaigns off of the results of the survey, Zimmerman said.

“We’re aiming to get about 150 to 200 surveys” before Dec. 5, Gomberg said. But HOPE, with the assistance of teams from other student and off-campus groups, has far surpassed that number. As of Monday, the group had collected about 250 surveys and aims to have 300 by the end of the week, Zimmerman said.

HOPE has participated in several effective lobbying campaigns in the past. In spring 2017, HOPE students were active lobbyists and participants in the successful movement to restore the no-fare bus pass for low-income seniors and individuals with disabilities. The group also canvassed for an affordable housing bond initiative in 2016  and lobbied successfully for a homeless bill of rights in 2012, The Herald previously reported.

“We always partner with existing community organizations if they’re already doing the work,” Zimmerman said.

Student outreach tackles case management

Students are often limited in their lobbying abilities by their academic time commitments, both Zimmerman and Gomberg said. In spite of those commitments, both outreach and advocacy have continued to grow. The HOPE outreach staff travels in teams of four or five, six nights a week on three different routes. Those routes travel through downtown Providence, the south side of Providence and Pawtucket.

HOPE works through two primary avenues — direct service, called outreach, and political action, called advocacy. The group has expanded in recent years, growing from 45 members in spring 2017 to 75 members this semester. That has increased HOPE’s capacity for both direct service and advocacy, Zimmerman said.

Some students are also beginning to build “case management” skills, Gomberg said. For example, a group of HOPE students recently received a training on how to help homeless individuals obtain various forms of identification in order to successfully navigate the application process for housing vouchers.

HOPE’s growth into case management, expanded outreach and new survey leadership all stem from a central motivating mission, Zimmerman said. “HOPE’s goal is to eradicate homelessness. … We believe that direct service isn’t enough by itself. There has to be a structural aspect to make change in the community,” he said.

At the meal site Nov. 14, Zimmerman spoke with Reverend Sullivan at the doorway during a pause in the collection of surveys. Systemic change to the problem of homelessness “would be my dream,” Sullivan said. “Society as a whole needs to grasp that there are those who have literally nothing.”

A few days before the trip to the City Meal Site, Zimmerman explained his dedication to HOPE while rain lashed against the window. “Once a week, you take two hours … and you have conversations with people who are literally in this weather living on the street,” Zimmerman said. It “reinforces how much more we have to do on behalf of the Providence community.”



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