By FRANK CARINI
PROVIDENCE — The solution to this complex societal issue doesn’t lie with increasing police presence, outlawing panhandling and keeping the less fortunate out of Kennedy Plaza. In fact, laws and policies designed to criminalize and demean poverty and homelessness only perpetuate the real problem: a growing chasm between the rich and poor that is slowly ripping society apart.
Ultimately, the issue of homelessness must be addressed with a hefty dose of compassion. Society, though, has lacked if for sometime. We’re more concerned about “cleaning up” Times Square and Kennedy Plaza than “regulating” Wall Street. We’re offended by the desperate asking for spare change, but shrug our collective shoulders when pension funds are raided by Big Banks.
We’re appalled by street-level drug deals, but apathetic to backroom deals. While we carelessly toss 40 percent of our food into landfills to rot, some cities and towns have actually criminalized the sharing of sustenance with homeless people, and others have made it more difficult to feed the hungry.
We relentlessly attack the Affordable Care Act and decry universal health care, but barely flinch when pharmaceutical and health-care CEOs make millions by ruthlessly jacking up the price of life-saving drugs and procedures. We blame the vulnerable, after they are sold financial gimmicks they can’t afford or don’t fully understand, for daring to grab at pieces of the American dream that are so relentlessly hyped. We pass laws that essentially make it a crime to be poor, but have allowed Big Money to hijack our alleged democracy.
Earlier this month, a former Providence mayor illustrated perfectly this growing disconnect. Joseph Paolino Jr., managing partner of Paolino Properties and the new chairman of the Providence Downtown Improvement District, held a “press conference” to announce his plans for dealing with the city’s homeless population and nuisance panhandlers, specifically those who loiter in Kennedy Plaza too near his real-estate empire. Only select media members and his business-community insiders were allowed to attend.
As RI Future documented so well, security guards and police officers prevented activists, including members of the Homeless Bill of Rights Defense Committee, House of Hope and the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project, and some reporters from going to the fifth floor of the Providence Convention Center, where Paolino was holding court. In Trump-like fashion, he later blamed others for his exclusive meeting, telling RI Future, “That was a mistake by security guards that don’t even work for us.”
Paolino supports a city ordinance that would ban panhandlers from asking for money from people in cars. He and City Council member Wilbur Jennings, who sponsored the ban, say that kind of panhandling is too dangerous.
So is living on the street.
Cranston and Newport are currently considering similar ordinances. East Providence has mentioned the idea.
Sadly, this conversation seems less about ending homelessness and more about not making the better-off feel uncomfortable. It’s about creating fear to hide a real problem that touches some 4,000 Rhode Islanders, many of whom are living on the streets of Providence. It’s about trying to privatize public space.
In an April op-ed in the Providence Journal, Paolino blamed Mayor Jorge Elorza for not enforcing the 2002 City Council ordinance on “aggressive” panhandling, writing, “By all indications, there are more panhandlers on the streets of downtown since this decision was made. By all indications, panhandlers have become more aggressive in approaching people for money in the past few months.”
By the third paragraph, the real-estate investor had played the trump card, writing that, “If people don’t feel safe downtown, they will stop coming here. And if they do stop, the impact will be felt by downtown merchants, restaurateurs, entertainment venues, hotels and businesses in general. Existing businesses will suffer, and new businesses and visitors will give a thumbs down to downtown.”
He neglects to mention more crimes, especially violent ones, are committed against the homeless than by the homeless. From 1999-2015, the National Coalition for the Homeless documented 1,657 acts of violence against homeless individuals in the United States by perpetrators with a home. Those crimes included murder, beatings, rapes and mutilations, and 428 homeless victims died.
During a March radio interview on WPRO Paolino said the city needs to provide “day-care centers for a lot of these people to try to help give them shelter.” He also voiced his frustration about the city allowing “the downtown to be a magnet for a lot of problems.” He was referring mostly to panhandlers and the homeless.
“No wonder the Superman Building is vacant,” he said. “What company would want to go there with the problems that exist in Kennedy Plaza today?”
Paolino’s shallow take on the misfortune of others essentially implies that the success of Providence’s downtown rests with keeping panhandlers and the homeless away. He wants to literally enforce the removal of people he deems unworthy to occupy his downtown space. Panhandlers are the reason why the city’s tallest building remains vacant. The homeless are responsible for the downtown’s collection of empty storefronts and office space, not, say, rents that are too high for Providence.
San Francisco’s large and highly-visible homeless population hasn’t kept tourists, homebuyers, renters and businesses away. In fact, landlords looking to cash in on this property rush are exasperating the city’s homelessness problem by evicting middle and low-income families and raising rents significantly.
Some property owners would like to see a similar rush in Providence, except the homeless wouldn’t be allowed to linger downtown, especially in Kennedy Plaza or Burnside Park.
“The mayor exhibited vision in reaching out to the amazing amount of creative talent that we have right here in our city and our state. The area was alive with vibrancy, art, music, dance, food — and people flocking to Kennedy Plaza to enjoy the festivities and the city itself,” Paolino wrote in April, referring to PVDFest 2015. “But the area was not alive with the panhandlers and the homeless, because the mayor — knowing that part of hosting a popular event is creating an environment in which people feel safe — made sure that they were prevented from being anywhere near the PVDFest site.”
The more compassionate and productive approach would be to include the less fortunate in such events, rather than exclude them. We should be applauding the decision that stopped the enforcement of the city’s anti-panhandling ordinance, not scheming to bring back an unfair law that targets the poor and the homeless. A lack of money shouldn’t prevent free speech. Panhandling isn’t the way out of a bad situation, but it also shouldn’t be illegal. In fact, it’s constitutionally protected.
If one person is allowed to hold a sign shaming women who are visiting a health-care provider, then another should have the right to hold a sign asking for help, food or money. If someone can tell a woman she’s committing a sin for entering a particular doctor’s office, another has the right to ask for spare change.
From both this actions and words, Paolino, despite his claims to the contrary, appears more concerned about moving poor people away from his downtown properties than actually addressing poverty.
Last year, Rhode Island had the highest rate (13.9 percent) of its residents living in poverty (141,035) among the six New England states, and ranked 26th among all states, according to The Economic Progress Institute. The poverty level for a family of four is $24,000.
Slices of life
Kennedy Plaza and adjacent Burnside Park host an eclectic mix of people. Smokers and non-smokers. Litterbugs and bottle collectors. Commuters and loiters. Hustlers and suits. Black and white. Asians and Latinos. Drug users and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Teenagers and seniors. Students and teachers. Blue collar and white collar. Immigrants and townies. Families and loners. All are a combination of those and other labels, and each has the capability to make someone else’s experience better or worse.
Urban life is diverse. A group of black teenagers in hoodies may intimidate some people. A group of white men in suits may intimidate others. A group of teenage girls is feared by all. But that doesn’t make anyone in any of those groups a thug, racist or mean girl.
Yet, people such as Paolino and Jennings — and they’re hardly alone — are quick to demonize panhandlers and the homeless, blaming them for the downtown’s ills. Is a homeless man sleeping on a bench in Burnside Park more threatening than another man walking a dog a few feet way? Is a person asking for spare change in Kennedy Plaza anymore of a nuisance than another speaking aggressively on a cellphone?
Rather than pick on the less fortunate, perhaps society’s bullies should help bring about real change. Instead, they suggest more of the same.
In his springtime op-ed, the former Providence mayor suggested that the downtown business community “take a leadership role in this effort by banding together to hire a social worker whose only responsibility will be to work in concert with the Providence Police Department and Crossroads Rhode Island’s caseworkers in speaking — individually — with every person downtown who is panhandling, homeless, or who needs help.”
Paolino also has kind of committed the Providence Downtown Improvement District to investing $100,000 to assist in the hiring of panhandlers; said he wants to help advocates for the homeless secure an additional $1 million in support from the General Assembly; called for more shelters; and offered up one of his downtown micro-lofts.
Throwing a few more dollars at the problem, opening more shelters, providing one room to one person, and hiring one, likely to be underpaid and overworked, social worker to roam Providence’s streets doesn’t address the root causes of homelessness.
Paolino’s ideas would do nothing more than treat some of the symptoms. For example, his idea to open more shelters goes against the accepted model of solving homelessness that calls for actually providing people with homes. Shelters are just a more costly alternative to permanent housing.
While they are necessary for short-term crises — domestic violence for example — shelters too often serve as long-term housing. The cost of an emergency shelter bed is nearly $8,100 more than the average annual cost of a federal housing subsidy, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Gone to pieces
Homeless advocates, such as Eric Hirsch, professor of sociology at Providence College and a member of the Homeless Bill of Rights Defense Committee, have noted that Paolino’s proposals are akin to discredited “broken-windows” policies. In fact, the college professor directly blames Paolino for Providence’s homelessness problem.
“He builds luxury developments and office space,” Hirsch recently told ecoRI News. “He hasn’t developed any housing for middle- or low-income people. Joe is part of the problem.”
Hirsch, who has been advocating on behalf of the homeless for two decades, said rates of U.S. homelessness were low in the post-World War II era, until a dramatic rise in income inequality began in the late 1970s. He explained that with income and wealth concentrated at the top, developers began to build only expensive suburban homes and luxury downtown apartments and condominiums.
“Economic inequality is the problem,” he said. “There’s a small number of people with all the income and wealth. The system is based on this idea that the market can solve all problems.”
There’s four decades of evidence that shows it can’t solve homelessness. In fact, distorted housing production has largely contributed to the spike in homelessness, according to Hirsch.
For the past 40 years, he said, private developers, including those in Rhode Island, haven’t built any affordable housing. He said the last time the free market built non-subsidized middle- and low-income housing in the Ocean State was in the ’70s.
Development focused on higher-end living has limited the supply of low- and moderate-income housing, causing rents to increase. In Rhode Island, one-bedroom rents are now about $1,000 a month, requiring a $40,000 annual income to be affordable, according to Hirsch. A full-time employee working for minimum wage makes about $17,000 to $18,000 annually.
“You can be working full time but you can’t afford to live in a one-bedroom apartment,” Hirsch said. “That’s where our rents are now. It’s not right. We can’t depend on the people who created the problem to fix it.”
Permanent solution required
Solving the social/economic injustice that is homelessness is complicated, and takes more effort than creating a task force or subcommittee, or commissioning a study. It takes a combination of patience, political will, better wages, fair workweek scheduling, better access to health care, job training, a constructively engaged public, mental-health and substance-abuse counseling, transportation options and, of course, more affordable housing.
“It’s about building public will to get the political will,” said LeeAnn Byrne, policy director for the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless.
It’s not about, say, installing “Giving Meters,” as Mayor Elorza has proposed. For one, they’ll likely cost more to install, maintain and empty than they will generate in donations.
The fortunate should feel uncomfortable about the plight of those who have been left homeless for myriad reasons, some beyond their control. Life can get away quickly. The continued slashing of social-service budgets has disenfranchised the population in need. This country’s homelessness epidemic exploded in the 1980s under the Reagan administration. It’s just now beginning to be effectively addressed, despite efforts to the contrary.
During the ’80s housing crisis, Hirsch said, the federal government cut support for public and subsidized housing and instead funded emergency shelters and soup kitchens. That decision, he said, has since institutionalized a revolving Rhode Island population of between 4,000 and 5,000 homeless individuals.
The less fortunate also need to take more responsibility of their predicament. That self-serving requirement, however, is made more difficult when others continuously push them to society’s fringes. The plight of the homeless population is also hampered by society’s propensity to blame individuals for systematic failures.
“We have this tendency to blame the victim and not the people responsible,” Hirsch said. “What ties all these people together is low incomes and little access to affordable housing. They’re not all addicted to drugs and alcohol, or have mental-health issues. The system is good at making a few people wealthy, but doesn’t do a good job of meeting the needs of people living below median income.”
The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness notes that leaving a person to remain chronically homeless costs taxpayers as much as $30,000 to $50,000 annually. Without access to a home and preventive health care, the homeless cycle in and out of taxpayer-subsidized facilities such as hospital emergency departments and inpatient beds, detox centers, jails, prisons, psychiatric institutions and nursing homes — at a significantly higher public expense than subsidized housing and health care.
Simply put, having a place to live keeps people healthier and costs lower. For every chronically homeless person who finds permanent housing, taxpayers save $7,946, according to Karen Jeffreys, associate director for the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless.
Jeffreys, who was one of the many homeless advocates who was barred from attending Paolino’s mid-September power play, said emergency shelters don’t address the problem of homelessness.
“When we leave people on the streets, they use other public services at a higher rate,” Hirsch said. “We would save millions by housing people and providing them access to health care, but our housing system doesn’t address the full spectrum of need.”
By investing in homeless people instead of continuing to fund the problem — financing more beds in more shelters, for instance — and protecting a system that benefits the few at the expense of the many, society could lessen the strain on its resources and save taxpayer money. More importantly, such an investment would help end a cruel ride most homeless people aren’t equipped to stop.
For the past three decades, tens of billions of dollars have been spent, largely unwisely, on the problem of homelessness at the local, state and national levels. Those dollars have failed to stem this fast-rising tide. In fact, each year about 1 percent of the U.S. population, some 3.5 million individuals, experiences at least one night of homelessness.
The solution, here in Providence or anywhere else in the United States, doesn’t include opening more shelters. That approach is a well-documented failure. When it comes to homelessness, shelters must be nothing more than a vehicle to independent living.
However, Providence, and Rhode Island overall, are among the many places nationwide lacking the necessary political will to properly address the problem. As Hirsch noted, the poor don’t vote much and the homeless don’t vote.
“If it doesn’t get them votes, politicians don’t care,” he said. “Doing something about homelessness isn’t popular politically.”
The high price of housing and low wages severely limits a homeless person’s ability to find a place to live, especially if he or she is disabled or living on a fixed income. In Rhode Island, for example, someone who is declared physically or mentally unable to work — a designation Hirsch noted is not easily granted — receives $733 a month in supplemental Medicaid. And society wonders why some people are forced to panhandle. (Hirsch said panhandlers can make up to $50-$75 a day; $25-$30 is more the norm.)
Even for the most capable and motivated individuals, it can be a long road back from homelessness to permanent housing. Addressing the problem means helping people open bank accounts, teaching them job skills and assisting them in finding employment in the local community. It means providing people with places to live. All it takes is a little compassion, and we all save money.
“We solve this problem by increasing public subsidies, increasing wages and making rents affordable,” Hirsch said. “Unless we do that, it will remain a shelter system that houses thousands.”
Frank Carini is the editor of ecoRI News.