Advocates for the homeless set up a soup kitchen in the State House rotunda Thursday to bring the state’s increasing homeless problem right to the feet of state legislators.
The state’s homeless population is at a five-year high and thousands are near or facing homelessness in the imminent future due to high rents, an increasing cost of living and low and stagnant wages, the advocates said, calling upon members of the General Assembly to support a series of legislative initiatives that would expand affordable housing, fund homeless prevention and create a Homeless Bill of Rights.
The “State House Soup Kitchen” will be open every Wednesday from 3 to 4 p.m. hereafter, managed each week by a different community group. This week, rows of paper bag lunches were lined up on a folding table and steady stream of people from all walks of life took turns helping themselves to a meal.
One person who took one of the paper bag lunches was “Marty,” a middle-aged woman who is now trying to get out of homelessness.
“I would like to have spaghetti and meatballs, but without a home, I can’t cook that,” Marty said. “It’s challenging every day. It’s a challenge for every homeless person out there. We want people to see we do exist. We are people. We are human, just like you.”
The venue was also where new data about the state’s homeless population was released. The numbers show 4,410 Rhode Islanders spent at least one night in a homeless shelter last year, of which 40 percent are families. A quarter were children. Nine percent were veterans.
The totals mark a five-year high and reflect the impact of the ongoing economic downturn. More than 5,000 were counted as recently as 2004 but that number managed to fall below 4,000 after a few years of affordable housing projects and other legislative and community initiatives going into effect.
“There are way too many people who were homeless in the state last year,” said Eric Hirsch, a professor of sociology at Providence College and chairman of the Homeless Management Information System, which tracks the state’s homeless population.
Hirsch said the average rent in the state was $161 per person. In 2010, the average rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in Rhode Island was $1,165 per month.
“Right there is a reason for homelessness,” Hirsch said. “People can not afford ten times the rent.”
Hirsch said the data shows it requires a household income of $47,000 to afford an apartment at a rate of 30 percent of income. The average income is $30,000.
“The real surprise is that we don’t have tens of thousands of homeless people and that’s because people have to double up with friends or relatives or wind up on the street,” Hirsch said. “So we know how to solve this problem. It’s really very simple. Provide affordable housing to people and that will end homelessness.”
And Hirsch's research indicates that it actually costs the state more money to leave people on the street instead of intervening.
Giving a homeless person a case worker and rent subsidies cost $8,000 per year less per person than what it now costs to leave people to bounce between state agencies and shelters.
Lt. John Luby, state coordinator for the Salvation Army, said there are thousands of Rhode Islanders who are at the brink and living week-to-week.
There are “many people who spend more than 50 percent of their income on rent,” Luby said. “It’s easy to do the math — there’s not much left in the budget for food, for medicine and education and clothing.”
The Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless is calling upon state leaders to support four specific initiatives that would create a dedicated funding stream to fund homeless prevention, affordable housing, rental assistance and foreclosure prevention.
One component would be a Homeless Bill of Rights which would prevent discrimination against homeless people by “ensuring that Rhode Islanders who experience homelessness are granted the same rights, privileges and access to public services as any other citizen.”
And advocates are hoping voters will cast a nod towards a $25 million affordable housing bond to be placed on the 2012 ballot.
“The good news is we have solutions,” said Jim Ryczek, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless. “We are at a critical crossroads where we can choose between the road of doing nothing, which will lead to a continued homeless and foreclosure crisis, or we can choose the path to economic recovery that will ensure that all Rhode Islanders have a place to call home.”