By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
Annually, for the past three-plus decades, between 4,000 and 5,000 Rhode Islanders have spent at least one night on the street, in a shelter, in a car or on a park bench. Some have spent years living in a rotation of shelters and being fed by a host of soup kitchens, often taking the bus to get from one to the other.
The number of homeless people in the state, however, is slowly decreasing, and, according to the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, the problem could soon be solved, kind of.
Ending homelessness doesn’t mean no Rhode Islander will ever be homeless again. It’s about rebuilding a broken system to address the problem before it spirals out of control.
“We need a system that doesn’t shelter people but houses them,” said Karen Jeffreys, associate director for the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless. “Shelters have become homes, but the day will come when everyone now in our shelters and living on the street will have a home. We know how to solve homelessness. We know how to do this.”
Jeffreys is referring to the Housing First model — a relatively recent initiative in the efforts to end homelessness. Rather than moving homeless people through different tiers of housing, where each level moves them closer to independent living — from the streets to a shelter to a transitional housing program to their own apartment, for example — this accepted model moves a homeless individual or household quickly from the street or homeless shelter into an apartment.
This approach is based on the concept that a homeless person or family’s primary need is stable housing, and that other issues that may affect the individual or household should be addressed once housing is obtained. In contrast, outdated programs require the homeless to quit their vices before being given a place to live.
“The old way required people to stop drinking or stop smoking,” said LeeAnn Byrne, the coalition’s policy director. “Putting people in houses first works. It provides stability. It gives a homeless person a foundation to build a life on — instead of using the idea of housing as a carrot to stop them from drinking and using drugs.”
Byrne said the old way of placing people in homes had a 30 percent success rate. The success rate of Housing First is 90 percent to 95 percent, she said, noting that figure meshes with the rate of that of the average renter.
In 2014, Rhode Island made a commitment to both house all those who are homeless and create a system that is able to rapidly house individuals and families who lose housing in the future. This commitment was made by signing on to a national movement, the Zero: 2016 campaign.
In the past year and a half, the campaign in Rhode Island has housed 748 individuals, according to the Providence-based coalition. Jeffreys said the people who have been housed so far are veterans and the chronically homeless.
“We’re working with people who are hard to place,” she said. “They have no money and need high levels of support. We have had successes. It’s better than it was five years ago.”
Transitioning homeless people to apartments is also made difficult by the two systems that currently exist.
“We can’t divert all the services at once,” Byrne said. “It will take patience. We’re running both systems at the same time. Changing the system will take time.”
The antiquated shelter system is the more expensive and less effective model. For every chronically homeless person who finds permanent housing, taxpayers save $7,946, according to Jeffreys.
“We have to show people it’s worth the investment,” Byrne said.
On the economic level alone, housing the homeless instead of sheltering them saves taxpayers a substantial amount of money. 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 Homeless.
The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness has noted 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, detox centers, jails, prisons, psychiatric institutions and nursing homes — at a significantly higher public expense than subsidized housing and health care.
The chronically homeless, the group of people currently being addressed in the Zero: 2016 campaign, make up 12 percent to 15 percent of this population but use about 60 percent of the public resources allocated to address homelessness, according to Jeffreys.
Last year, Rhode Island, at 13.9 percent, had the highest rate of residents living in poverty among the six New England states, and ranked 26th among all states, according to The Economic Progress Institute. The federal poverty level for a family of four is $24,000. Many of the 141,035 Rhode Islanders living in poverty are women and children from struggling families.
Next year, the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless will begin to focus more on finding homes for families living in the state’s shelter system. About 40 percent of Rhode Island’s homeless are families, according to Jeffreys. She said 25 percent are children.
Substance abuse, mental-health issues and/or physical disabilities are the main reasons why people are chronically homeless, Jeffreys said. For families, she said, it’s more about economics. Lower housing costs and higher wages are two of the best ways to address the problem of homelessness.
Both Jeffreys and Byrne noted that for all of the state’s talk about job creation Rhode Island’s economic development plan doesn’t address housing. There are Rhode Islanders with jobs who don’t have homes. The state hasn’t put much money into solving the problem.
In fact, compared to its two southern New England neighbors, the amount of money Rhode Island invests in housing is dismal. In fiscal 2016, Massachusetts spent $99.72 and Connecticut $76.98 on a per capita basis to address housing needs, according to the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless. Rhode Island spent $8.46.
“We live in a state where if you drilled down on the date you would find a lot of people who are one paycheck away from panhandling,” Byrne said.