Deep cuts to social services, lousy pay, limited affordable housing, a broken health-care system and a collective lack of compassion forces people to live on the streets.
By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
The solution to homelessness is rather simple. The only thing complicated about solving it is the fact we haven’t. Putting an antiquated shelter system out of business and providing everyone with a place to live wouldn’t cost taxpayers a dime more. In fact, both money and lives would be saved, and all of society would benefit.
But voter apathy, political dispassion and loudening cries for smaller government have conspired to keep people on the street. Government leaves the heavy lifting to the nonprofit industrial complex, leaving it to fight over financial scraps and forcing it to build more affordable housing using an inefficient piecemeal approach.
There’s no coordinated effort in Rhode Island, or nationwide for that matter, to put people in homes. The grant-funding apparatus essentially pits nonprofits against each other, as political campaigns largely ignore the plight of the less fortunate and voters fail to force elected officials not to. The administrations of presidents Reagan and Clinton shredded the social safety net. Pieces of it have been blowing in the wind ever since.
For every groundbreaking shovel dirtied and ribbon cut to celebrate the opening of a new affordable housing development, such as the one recently spearheaded by ONE Neighborhood Builders to build 36 residential units in Providence’s Olneyville neighborhood, there’s some campaign built around trumped-up concern for public safety that really aims to further marginalize those in need.
In Cranston, for instance, the mayor and City Council support an ordinance that would limit panhandling. Like the one supported in Providence by real-estate investor and former mayor Joseph Paolino Jr. and City Council member Wilbur Jennings, the ordinance would ban anyone from entering a road or a median with the intention of giving something to someone in a car or receiving something from someone in a vehicle. Paolino and Jennings are chiefly concerned that homeless people and panhandlers are diminishing the appeal of Kennedy Plaza and Burnside Park.
The ordinance supported by Cranston Mayor Allan Fung and the one proposed for Providence are basically modeled after one in Texas that was advanced to keep the Ku Klux Klan from passing out literature. Newport is considering adopting a similar panhandling ordinance.
Last summer, the Cranston City Council began its fight against the poor by approving a resolution asking the General Assembly to pass a panhandling law that would withstand legal challenge and enable municipalities “to protect the health, safety and general welfare of their citizens.”
Courts have ruled ordinances to limit panhandling unconstitutional. Fung has responded to opponents of his ordinance by saying there’s nothing unconstitutional about it and claiming it’s just a political move orchestrated by his Democratic mayoral opponent.
Half of Rhode Island’s homeless population, about 2,000 people, has zero income, according to Maria Cimini of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless. She said people who are panhandling are likely homeless or on the verge of becoming homeless. Some also suffer from mental illness.
“As a society we have let them down,” Cimini said.
Fung’s lack of concern for the struggling and disenfranchised is disheartening, and often typical. It’s the standard operating procedure for many with power: remove the homeless and less fortunate from society’s view. That often means criminalizing constitutional rights.
“Those who care deeply about this issue bristle at the idea of moving people from our vision,” said Andy Horwitz, associate dean of the Roger Williams University School of Law. “They think we shouldn’t have to see it — if we don’t see it, we don’t have to deal with it — and that is exactly what’s wrong.”
This out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach embraced by wayward government to address homelessness and poverty is what helped create the well-intentioned shelter system that advocates for the homeless are now trying to demolish. It’s what keeps that demolition work creeping at a glacial pace.
“We have criminalized extreme poverty and homelessness,” said Eric Hirsch, professor of sociology at Providence College and a member of Rhode Island’s Homeless Bill of Rights Defense Committee. “We refuse to address the root causes.”
Fung, Paolino and Jennings — and others who share their mindset — dismiss advocates, data and the Constitution, and instead spread fear and ignorance.
In September, several days after Paolino had held his invitation-only summit to address Providence’s homeless population and “nuisance” panhandlers, ecoRI News spoke with several people who lived and/or worked downtown and frequently visited Kennedy Plaza — the epicenter of Jennings and Paolino’s quality-of-life concerns.
None of the people wanted their names used. One gentleman, an attorney whose work he said brought him downtown regularly, called Kennedy Plaza “a shit hole” and said it should be nuked. Another gentleman, who said he takes the bus from Kennedy Plaza just about every day, referred to many of those whom he shares this downtown space with as “riff-raff.” He said heated arguments are common, people are “smashed out of their minds” and he’s regularly asked for money.
ecoRI News asked this gentleman if he had ever been threatened or witnessed a crime. He said he hadn’t, but added that he did once see a person being handcuffed. He didn’t think the man was homeless.
Other people ecoRI News spoke with said they are intimidated by the large groups of people who hang out in front of the 7-Eleven across the street from Kennedy Plaza.
The high cost of living
Since the late 1970s, when income inequality began increasing, Hirsch said development has largely focused on luxury living. This four-decade trend has limited the supply of low- and moderate-income housing and caused rents to increase — a bad combination for Rhode Island, especially when the number of lower-income households in the state is projected to grow, as an April report from HousingWorksRI projects.
Last year, average rent prices in Rhode Island increased from 2014 levels by 6.7 percent for studio apartments, 5.1 percent for one-bedroom, 5.6 percent for two-bedroom and 6.6 percent for three-bedroom — the steepest single-year rent increases since 2004, according to the 52-page report titled Projecting Future Housing Needs.
In Rhode Island, the fair-market monthly rent for a studio apartment is $662, $812 for a one-bedroom and $991 for a two-bedroom, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. The annual household income needed to afford a studio apartment is $26,463, $32,467 for a one-bedroom and $39,639 for a two-bedroom.
On Aquidneck Island, those monthly rents jump to $752, $962 and $1,219, respectively. The required household incomes increase to $30,080, $38,480 and $48,760.
A full-time employee working for the Rhode Island minimum wage ($9.60 an hour) would have to work 65 hours a week to afford a modest one-bedroom apartment not on Aquidneck Island.
“You can be working full time but you can’t afford to live in a one-bedroom apartment,” Hirsch said.
Housing is considered affordable if a household pays no more than 30 percent of its annual gross income on housing-related costs, such as rent or mortgage, taxes, utilities and insurance. Households are considered “cost burdened” if they pay more than 30 percent, and considered “severely cost burdened” if they pay more than 50 percent.
Compared to 11 other advanced countries, rental affordability in the United States is higher than all but Spain, according to a September research brief by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. According to the research led by Michael Carliner, 28.5 percent of U.S. renters spend more than half their salary on housing.
From 2008 to 2012, an estimated 164,740 Rhode Island households (40 percent of the state’s total) were cost burdened and 78,795 (19 percent) were severely cost burdened, according to the HousingWorksRI report.
The report also provides some other discouraging Rhode Island housing statistics:
The number of cost-burdened renters and owners increased by 44.4 percent from 2000 to 2012, even as the number of households didn’t change significantly.
The number of severely-cost-burdened households increased 59 percent from 2000 to 2012.
In 2000, about a third of renters were paying unaffordable rents; by 2012, close to half were.
During two interviews this fall with ecoRI News about the issue of homelessness, Providence College’s Hirsch said economic inequality and a system based on the idea that the free market can solve all problems have worsened the housing crisis. He said government needs to provide more rental subsidies and housing vouchers. He said more affordable housing units need to be built or repaired.
“We know how to end homelessness: put people in apartments,” he said. “It’s not that complicated to fix. The free market can’t solve this problem. We need significant investment in housing. As long as rents remain where they are, we’re not going to end homelessness. Government needs to step in.”
That part of the solution appears to be the most difficult. Last year, for example, the Republican budget passed by the House proposed cutting Medicaid by $900 billion, slashing spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by hundreds of billions, and substantially decreasing funding for housing assistance and job training, all to offset a significant increase in military spending.
In 2014, the United States led the world in military spending at $610 billion, accounting for 34 percent of the planet’s total, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
In Rhode Island, thanks largely to funding cuts at the federal level, the construction of affordable homes has “dramatically declined in recent years,” according to HousingWorksRI. New workforce housing and other affordable homes averaged 334 units annually from 2004 to 2012. Production dropped to 152 units per year from 2013 to 2015.
The high cost of homelessness
Making sure 325 million Americans have a roof over their heads can’t be done cheaply, but it’s far less expensive than “caring” for the 3.5 million or so Americans who are homeless or caught up in the shelter system.
The cost of an emergency shelter bed, for instance, is about $8,000 more than the average annual cost of a federal housing subsidy, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Crossroads Rhode Island estimates that it costs taxpayers $40,000 annually to house a family in a shelter.
Shelters play important roles, such as helping women and children impacted by domestic violence, but they weren’t designed to address homelessness. Unfortunately, decades ago they became an accepted alternative to permanent housing.
“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.”
The Providence College professor mentioned a sign he recently saw that he said sums up the issue perfectly: “Housing is health care.”
Without access to a home and preventive health care, the homeless cycle in and out of taxpayer-subsidized institutions such as hospital emergency departments, ambulances, detox centers, jails, prisons, psychiatric institutions and nursing homes — at a significantly higher public expense than subsidized housing and health care.
Research conducted by Dennis Culhane at the University of Pennsylvania has found dramatic reductions in the length of shelter (85 percent) and hospital (57 percent) stays for homeless individuals with severe mental illness after placement in supportive housing. It’s been estimated that 20 percent to 30 percent of the U.S. homeless population suffers from severe mental illness.
Leaving a person to remain chronically homeless costs taxpayers an average of $31,617 annually, according to Crossroads Rhode Island. The average annual cost to taxpayers for an individual in subsidized housing is $23,671 — a savings of $7,946 for every person placed in permanent housing.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that about 250 individuals in Rhode Island meet the criteria for chronic homelessness. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines a chronically homeless person as “an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition who has been continuously homeless for a year or more,” or “an unaccompanied individual with a disabling condition who has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.”
Douglas Hall, director of economic and fiscal policy at the Providence-based Economic Progress Institute, said there’s plenty of evidence that shows housing people and providing them with health care saves money. One would think this money-saving fact would be embraced by politicians, voters and taxpayers, especially in the wake of the still-rippling 2008-09 economic crisis. But it barely registers as a campaign issue.
“As a society a lot of folks aren’t particularly interested in helping the people at the bottom,” Hall said. “Perhaps it’s misplaced morals, or the judgement that people need to pick themselves up by their bootstraps. But we don’t realize many at the bottom don’t have boots.”
Since poor people seldom vote and the homeless don’t cast ballots, shady landlords continue to profit at the expense of cost-burdened tenants, and vacant and boarded-up buildings in urban areas aren’t utilized to build housing equity.
“If it doesn’t get them votes, politicians don’t care,” Hirsch said. “Doing something about homelessness isn’t popular politically.”
Politicians and the public, rightfully so, have little problem spending thousands of dollars in taxpayer money to search for boaters lost at sea or rescue a hiker trapped in the mountains. But many of these same people show little compassion for others in need of help — those living under bridges, sleeping on park benches and asking for spare change — going so far as supporting laws and practices that further push these people to society's fringes.
Roger Williams University’s Horwitz blames this lack of caring on a growing me-first society. Selfie sticks support his case.
“It’s more socially acceptable now to be me first,” he said. “I don’t want to pay taxes. Government should get out of everything. People don’t truly understand what that really means. Government supplies significant social services.”
Repairing cut-up safety net
Ending homelessness doesn’t mean no Rhode Islander will ever be homeless again. It’s about rebuilding a broken system to address problems before they spiral out of control for an individual or family. It means catching people living paycheck to paycheck from slipping through the tattered social safety net when misfortune hits.
“The goal should be to prevent people from having to live in the shelter system,” Hirsch said. “No one should be in a shelter for more than a month. That shouldn’t happen, and it’s not a cheap way to deal with the problem.”
Cimini, of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, said the shelter system needs to be used as originally intended. “Ultimately, we need to be using emergency shelters for emergencies,” she said, “not where people spend months and years of their life.”
Besides a significant lack of affordable housing, other economic and societal factors, such as unfair workweek scheduling, low wages, limited transportation choices and a convoluted health-care system designed for the benefit of insurance companies and the pharmaceutical industry, contribute greatly to homelessness.
Rhode Island, in 2015, had the highest rate (13.9 percent) of its residents living in poverty (141,035) among the six New England states, according to The Economic Progress Institute. The poverty level for a family of four is $24,000.
Many Rhode Islanders, because of the increasing cost of housing combined with stagnant wages, are an accident or illness away from being forced to panhandle and/or sleep in a cemetery. Society’s growing concentration of wealth is having a trickle-down effect that is washing away the middle class.
“Our problems run pretty deep,” said Horwitz, a former public defender in Brooklyn, N.Y. “We’re losing the middle class. There’s a growing gap between those who are struggling and those who are doing fine.”
In the 21st century, one-person-working households have become basically extinct. Households now more than ever need two people working, and it’s not uncommon that they both need to work two or more jobs.
“People working full time in this country are living in poverty,” Cimini said. “Our income structures force them to live in poverty.”
Horwitz said both society and the economy would benefit if the minimum wage was raised enough for people to live.
“People can’t live on a full-time job,” he said. “We have to pay people a living wage. It would reset the economy, and pay people enough to actually participate in the economy. Businesses would ultimately benefit.”
This country’s complex tax code further drives a wedge between the haves and have-nots, according to Horwitz. He cited the estate tax as a prime example.
“We continue to perpetuate the accumulation of wealth,” said Horwitz, who is a member of the state's Homeless Bill of Rights Defense Committee. “I don’t get that. I don’t know why we see that as acceptable.”
Editor’s note: This is the first story in a four-part series looking at homelessness in Rhode Island.