By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff
Rhode Island has a formidable plan to reduce, prevent and eventually end homelessness. Opening Doors Rhode Island, adopted by the Rhode Island Housing Resources Commission in 2012, aims to end chronic homelessness and homelessness among veterans within five years, prevent and end homelessness for families and children within 10 years, and halve the number of homeless in the state within the same time frame.
The plan moves Rhode Island away from shelter-based and transitional-housing solutions, toward permanent housing. It also focuses resources on educational and health services for the homeless. If implemented with full funding, the homeless population in Rhode Island could be reduced from about 4,000 people to 2,500 by 2017, according to the plan.
Despite the plan’s intentions, Rhode Island isn’t on pace to meet those goals. Like everything else, Opening Doors comes with a price tag — nearly $40 million annually, according to Eric Hirsch, professor of sociology at Providence College.
Opening Doors calls for the creation of 449 affordable homes over five years, subsidies for landlords who rent units to the poorest Rhode Islanders, support services, and funding to implement a rapid re-housing program to ensure additional Rhode Islanders don’t end up homeless.
Since peaking at some $22 million in 2005, state and federal resources devoted to ending homelessness in Rhode Island steadily declined to $11 million in 2013, a shortfall of $28 million compared to the annual need, according to Hirsch.
When funding peaked in 2005, homelessness declined, then, after funding cuts, the level increased again, he said.
Hirsch said funding declined because of the recession, but also because homelessness is simply not a priority for politicians on Smith Hill.
Hirsch, who has been advocating on behalf of the homeless for 20 years, recognizes that homelessness will not be solved by a wave of widespread human compassion. Instead, he approaches the issue from an economic standpoint.
Cutting resources dedicated to fighting homelessness counterintuitively increases the amount of money spent by taxpayers on the homeless, according to Hirsch. Homeless people use government-funded services such as shelters, emergency rooms, mental-health facilities, prisons, and drug and alcohol treatment facilities. The cost of these services add up to more than the cost of proactive programs designed to house the homeless, even when the cost of the person’s housing is completely subsidized by public dollars, he said.
A person living in the state’s shelter system for more than a year, or who has had four or more episodes of homelessness in the past three years, is classified as chronically homeless. Between 500 and 600 Rhode Islanders fall into this category, according to Daniel Kubasmeyer, executive director of Riverwood Mental Health Services.
In 2005, Riverwood was selected as one of two organizations in the state to participate in a pilot program to test the Housing First model of combating chronic homelessness. The program was a collaboration between the state and the United Way of Rhode Island. Housing First is simple: the chronically homeless are placed in subsidized, permanent housing with access to case managers and services. There are no strings attached; clients in the program aren’t required to be drug-free or sober before placement, or to seek health or mental services once housed.
Despite the cost of subsidizing apartments, paying case managers and providing services, proponents of Housing First claim the method saves taxpayers money by reducing its clients’ dependence on shelters and other emergency services.
Kubasmeyer admitted he was skeptical after researching successful Housing First case studies from other parts of the country. “I didn’t believe it,” he said at a presentation hosted by the First Unitarian Church of Providence in March.
From 2005-2007, Riverwood Mental Health Services and House of Hope Community Development Corporation placed 48 chronically homeless single adults in subsidized apartments. These people had been homeless for an average of more than seven years when they entered the program.
Based on interviews with clients about their experiences before and after entering the program, it was determined that each client cost taxpayers an average of $31,617 per year prior to entering the program. After entering the program, the cost dropped to $23,671, a savings of $7,946 per client. Retention rates were high, with 80 percent of clients still housed after three years.
About 60 percent of clients suffer from mental-health or substance-abuse issues, according to Kubasmeyer, and almost all have criminal records. He said Housing First provides them with the stability they need to address these issues.
“Lives are being rebuilt, even without mandates of sobriety or services,” he said.
Since the pilot began, Riverwood has expanded the program to include 160 units that house 200 people. Housing First saves taxpayers over $1.4 million each year, according to Kubasmeyer.
Kubasmeyer now believes Housing First is the solution to chronic homelessness. “The debate is over,” he said. “We need to give people housing and provide the resources for them to stay there.”
“Research shows that the most effective way to lift people out of homelessness is to get them into stable housing,” said Anne Nolan, president of Crossroads Rhode Island, another organization dedicated to providing secure and stable housing to the homeless.
In addition to operating its own Housing First program for the chronically homeless, Crossroads targets the newly homeless through its Rapid Re-Housing program. According to Nolan, the newly homeless often have the means to maintain housing, but need assistance getting back on track.
Crossroads owns or manages its own stock of affordable housing — 300 units in Providence for individuals and some 125 family apartments in Providence and North Kingstown. Newly homeless individuals and families likely to be able to sustain housing are placed in these units, according to Betty Johnson Simons, a staff member at Crossroads. As clients become self-sufficient, they move on to private housing, freeing up units for new Rapid Re-Housing clients. Clients are generally required to pay 30 percent of income as rent while in Crossroads housing, Johnson Simons said.
Since demand for the program’s units is greater than Crossroads’ stock, the organization also works with private-sector landlords to develop additional options for clients. Many clients move into the resulting market-rate units, where they receive time-limited financial assistance, often in the form of state-funded housing vouchers. The clients most likely to be able to maintain housing after that financial assistance ends are selected for these units, according to Johnson Simons.
Crossroads doesn’t place mandates, such as requiring clients to be drug or alcohol-free, on the homeless prior to offering them help. “People in our programs do not have to prove that they are worthy of housing,” Johnson Simmons said.
Once re-housed, Crossroads provides its clients the services they need to remain housed. “The most important thing about all of our programs is that we do not abandon people,” Nolan said.
Crossroads offers personalized services that connect people to health-care and mental-health professionals, and to addiction treatment programs that provide education and job training. The agency helps people apply for social security, and refers clients to the appropriate government agencies for assistance. Crossroads outreach workers often search the streets for people in need.
Crossroads prioritizes people for its programs by using the Service Prioritization Decision Assessment Tool (SPDAT), which provides a score that identifies individuals and families with the greatest needs.
“We work to divert people away from the shelter system who have other options and focus on housing people with the highest needs first,” Johnson Simons said. “Our outcomes for Rapid Re-Housing show that more than 90 percent of clients retain housing long term.”
The program also has cost benefits for taxpayers because, like with Housing First, people in stable housing don’t use shelters or as many emergency services.
A last resort
Those interviewed by ecoRI News for this story describe shelters as a last resort in the fight against homelessness.
“There will always be a need for shelters, but as time goes on, the need won’t be as great and people won’t be in them for the same durations,” Nolan said.
Crossroads operates a number of shelters in Providence, but Nolan said they should ideally be used during short-term emergency situations only. She said people sometimes live in shelters for years, a situation local organizations are trying to curtail.
“It costs more at first to help a person stay in housing, but those costs go down over time until the client needs little or no support,” said Johnson Simons of Crossroads. “Shelter costs never go down, and if a person stays in the system for a long time, the cost of shelter alone is enormous.”
Hirsch, the Providence College professor, said an over-reliance on shelters has institutionalized homelessness rather than reduced it. “Putting people into shelters does not end homelessness; it perpetuates it,” he said.
To end the problem of homelessness, Nolan, Hirsch and others say society needs to focus on permanent housing instead of shelters.
“Once individuals or families are in housing, their lives change dramatically for the better, which helps reduce shelter recidivism," Johnson Simons said.
“Rhode Island has a good plan to end homelessness because it is based on good data,” said Jim Ryczek, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless (RICH).
RICH collects and manages data on homelessness, works to reform payday lending, does foreclosure prevention and education, promotes healthy homes in low-income communities, and organizes legal clinics, where volunteer law professionals provide legal help to the homeless.
Ryczek said the obstacle to implementing Opening Doors is funding. Each year, RICH grades the plan’s progress; the most recent report awarded a C- to the amount of resources dedicated to creating affordable housing units. There is currently more demand than there are units, he said.
Two recent episodes on Smith Hill illustrate the issue. During the 2013 legislative session, the General Assembly allocated $750,000 for rental vouchers — 25 percent of what was requested. Legislators celebrated this as a success, but advocates for the homeless were left with 75 percent less resources than they required, Ryczek said.
During the 2014 legislative session, advocates proposed raising the Real Estate Transfer Tax to create a dedicated funding stream for affordable housing. The plan was approved and will generate an estimated $2.8 million annually to fight homelessness, but during the most recent session, $2.5 million dedicated to fighting homelessness was eliminated in order to balance the budget. The net result will be an estimated $300,000 in new funding.
While legislators negotiate and count pennies at the Statehouse, the impacts of homelessness continue to ravage the homeless community. Since the beginning of this year, RICH has held vigils for seven people who died on the streets, Ryczek said.
When people that die in shelters and other types of temporary housing are counted, the number of people RICH memorializes annually rises to between 25 and 40.
“We have the knowledge and understanding of what works, we are just not doing it fast enough,” Ryczek said.