They're not clustering on the streets, so you may not see them. But right now, Jim Ryczek, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, says Rhode Island has more homeless people than ever.
Shelter use had been rising dramatically for years, from 3911 individuals served in 1998 to 6889 in 2006. Then, for the last two years, targeted investments by the state and the federal government had begun to make a dent — in the year ending June 30, 2008, the number dropped to 6423 people. But new figures released this month by HousingWorksRI, a coalition focused on affordable-housing issues, show shelter use was up 43 percent in February from a year earlier.
The reasons are not surprising: job and income loss — by far the most common problem — as well as evictions and foreclosures, which are not only affecting homeowners, but also large numbers of renters who are pushed out of their apartments by the banks and new buyers.
"We're really concerned about what we've seen in the data and how it translates into real life," says Ryczek. Normally, "you see ebbs and flows" in shelter numbers, but the latest figures show "month after month" of increases.
As the economy has deteriorated, he notes, shelters have seen an influx of families — even during the 2006-08 decline, the number of homeless families grew by 8 percent — and "we're really worried about the capacity at this point."
For example, he says, when the state shut down the 100-bed Welcome Arnold Shelter in Cranston two years ago and moved everyone into smaller facilities through Operation First Step, there was no need for a larger women's shelter. But since then, so many women have become homeless that Crossroads Rhode Island had to open a shelter for them, "and now they have a 45- to 50-bed facility that's filled every night."
The shelters are still able to take everyone who needs a place to sleep, Ryczek says, because along with their beds, "everyone has cots or roll-out mattresses they can take out," but that can only last so long. Advocates see an urgent need to increase the capacity of other programs to prevent homelessness and put people back into stable housing — and on the state level at least, the outlook is grim.
The improvements in recent years, Ryczek notes, were a direct result of special efforts to reduce homelessness: the Neighborhood Opportunities Program, which provides housing for minimum-wage workers and people with disabilities who couldn't possibly afford market-rate apartments; the Housing First program, which targets the chronically homeless; and Rhode Island Housing's RoadHome Program, which gives cash assistance to people in danger of losing their homes.
All three programs have been proven successful, advocates say, but the state budget crisis is forcing cutbacks even as the need for them grows.
Take Neighborhood Opportunities. Started in 2001 with a $5 million state appropriation, and boosted to $7.5 million per year in 2006, it has contributed $41.5 million to help develop and operate 1217 affordable housing units, a new issue brief from Housing-WorksRI notes. But while the program originally subsidized both construction and operating costs, in fiscal 2008, it was cut to $2.5 million and restricted to operating subsidies; this year it was level-funded, and now Governor Donald L. Carcieri plans to eliminate it in fiscal 2010.
"We're losing ground," says Nellie M. Gorbea, executive director of HousingWorksRI. There is "a lot of concern" about losing Neighborhood Opportunities in particular, she says, and it's bad public policy, not only because that population is at high risk of homelessness, but because building housing generates economic activity. In fact, the issue brief shows, the $41.5 million from the state has leveraged an estimated $375.4 million in economic activity, or $9 per state dollar invested.
There is a bill in the House, H-5987, that would restore the program, and there are also bills — similar to legislation that all failed last year — to protect renters in properties that are foreclosed on, Ryczek says. At the federal level, US Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) last week unveiled a bipartisan bill to provide $2.2 billion for targeted homelessness assistance grant programs nationwide.
But the biggest source of hope at the moment, Ryczek says, is the federal economic stimulus package, which is going to pump nearly $7 million into the state just for homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing programs — "that's almost three times what we sink into our homeless shelter system yearly, and this is coming down pretty much by the middle of July, beginning of the fall."
That money should make it possible to put a lot of people back into stable homes, Ryczek says, but they'll still need income to cover their rent when the subsidies end, so the Coalition for the Homeless is pushing to use some of the money on job development programs with the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training.
And looking at the big picture, Ryczek, Gorbea, and their allies are pressing state leaders to support housing programs, not drop them as homelessness grows.
"We're dealing with a lot of folks at risk," says Ryczek, "and we know what to do. We need the political will to do it."