With the closure of winter, the homeless crisis in the RI continues to worsen
“It’s always hard to hear, but it’s hard because it’s true,” Melucci, House of Hope’s outreach program manager, later said. “He’s not wrong to have asked for help several times, and he got it in bits and pieces, but basically his situation hasn’t changed. This is true for a lot of the people we work with.
Rhode Island’s homeless crisis is worse than it has ever been, service providers say. The demand for services is on the rise, but the supply has not grown fast enough to meet the enormous challenge. At the same time, the state has $ 1.1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds, but no apparent urgency to use it.
Service providers like Melucci are frustrated with the pace of progress. A year and a half after the start of a pandemic which was terrible in itself and also made everything else worse, they are feeling the hurt feelings of trying to help people with little more than bus passes and a sympathetic ear.
“Colleagues have said to me, even in the past two weeks, ‘What’s my job at this point? Said Melucci. ”
The data is striking: In the past 30 days, at least 602 Rhode Islanders live outside, including 51 families with children, according to the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness. Before COVID, an average month would see between 75 and 170 people living outside. In times of economic downturn, they could approach 200 to 300 people per month. The waiting list for a shelter is now 1,000 names long.
“This reality of consistently high and exponentially increasing numbers is completely unprecedented,” said Caitlin Frumerie, Executive Director of the Coalition.
It comes at a time when the state has $ 1.1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funding in the bank. Gov. Dan McKee put forward plans for a 10 percent initial down payment, which would include housing relief. McKee wants the money out by the end of the year. It is more urgent than the General Assembly showed, but for service providers it is not fast enough.
“I wish I could say that the governor saw this emergency as the crisis it is,” Frumerie said. “Let him put his political clout and his funding to ensure that no child is sleeping outside this winter and that the homeless system has the resources it needs.” But this is simply not true.
McKee spokesman Matt Sheaff said in an emailed statement: “Tackling homelessness is a priority for the McKee-Matos administration. The governor met with almost all of the state’s homeless service providers in addition to visiting the homeless at the Amos House. “
Sheaff also acknowledged that more needs to be done, but listed all the things the state is already doing, including approving a multi-million dollar proposal to continue emergency hotel shelters until spring. , other forms of winter shelters, rental assistance, quick relocation and more. .
But even organizations generally more opposed to provocation say they are concerned, if not frustrated, by the current situation. It is a problem not only for the state, but also for cities and towns, they say.
“It feels like there is no emergency,” said Karen Santilli, executive director of shelter and housing provider Crossroads RI. “The level of concern is not there, at least for making the decisions that need to be taken to address it.”
A self-proclaimed optimist, Santilli added, “I look forward to our elected officials showing leadership to do the right thing.
Senate Speaker Dominick Ruggerio and House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi said in a joint statement that “responding to the housing crisis in Rhode Island is a top priority for the Senate and the House.
“This year,” they said, “we have made unprecedented progress, and we all recognize that there is still a lot of work to be done. “
Legislative leaders cite COVID-19 related rent relief as part of state progress, though service providers say chronically homeless are generally not eligible because they haven’t lost their housing during or because of COVID-19.
And even when someone has good housing or funds to help pay the rent, there is often no housing to accommodate them.
Service providers say there is much more than could be done: flexible rent relief, more money for hotel rooms, open space where people living in cars can park safely. security, and something like ECHO Village, a small house project that encountered great opposition.
An example of the gap: Currently, there is no quarantine and isolation site for homeless people who test positive for COVID-19 after the previous program expires, according to Frumerie. A new site was scheduled to open on November 1, but that was delayed, she said. While it’s not clear when it will reopen, the number of positive cases continues to rise, Frumerie said.
Shorter term: Winter is coming, when the system is always adding new beds so people can come in from the cold. There was a deadline Monday for suppliers to tell the state what type of projects they want to do. They are supposed to be operational by November 1. It’s a short window. As usual, requests come at the last minute, everything is delayed and they are in the dark.
“I recognize there is a lot of competition for money,” said Eileen Hayes, president and CEO of Amos House, a social service agency whose clients include homeless people. “But we could practically end homelessness if we really invested in housing development.”
Meanwhile, the phones are ringing incessantly, proverbially and literally. At the Homeless Helpline, run by the Coalition to End Homelessness, call center workers often have to tell people that resources are too limited to find a shelter bed immediately. .
“It’s the hardest part of this job,” manager Amy Espinal said in an interview earlier this year. “It can break you. If you don’t have the courage to say, “I’m sorry, no” – where are we? How can you give of yourself if your cup is empty? “
On Wednesday, a small part of the state’s homeless crisis erupted into public consciousness.
The vacant Wilson Street lot in Providence’s West End isn’t the only homeless settlement in the city or state, but it has attracted a lot of attention, including from city officials , who gave them until November 1 to leave. On Tuesday, a developer razed about half of the site, which was already littered with garbage but also gardens, tents and welcome mats.
“I don’t want to leave here,” camp resident Carmen Vargas said Thursday. “It’s my house.”
It’s not just on Wilson Street, of course. The people who are there now represent less than one percent of the people living in places unsuitable for human habitation at this time. It’s also downtown, as you would see if you joined Melucci, Smith and Banks on a recent Monday morning.
After being pushed back by the first man, the group continued on and saw another man sitting on a building along the Providence River with his back to the South Water Street cycle path. He slept with his arms crossed in front of him on his legs, like an airplane passenger preparing for a forced landing.
When Melucci leaned over he woke up and smiled gratefully: Melucci has known him for over two years. Gradually, as Melucci gave him a new bus pass and Smith took his Dunks order (hot with cream and sugar and a coffee bun), Jason Fewster, 48, recounted his own roaming story. It was not the linear story of substance use leading to job loss, home loss, homelessness. The last time he lost his home, he lost it because of an arrest. He had been clean at the time.
Now he goes wherever he can, but he feels like there is nowhere he is welcome. The park across the river is more welcoming to beer garden patrons than to people who keep their belongings in their well-padded backpacks.
“They built this park, obviously it wasn’t for us,” Fewster said, squeezing the coffee they brought him. “It wasn’t for everyone.”
So what would Fewster do with the $ 1.1 billion? He has some ideas. You could probably give tens of thousands to every homeless person in the state, he said, and they would find a way to spend it wisely – or at least have fun for a while, he joked.
More seriously: build apartment complexes, Fewster said. Some community centers where you can sit without being kicked out. Buy tents: Not everyone needs to live indoors, he said, and he would rather sleep outside than in jail. Self-esteem doesn’t come from a mortgage or a lease, he said.
“We just don’t have a roof over our heads,” he said. “I don’t see why we are so different. I don’t know how they see us.
John Tlumacki of Globe staff contributed to this report.