By Irwin Becker
The last few issues of this paper have highlighted the continuing reports about the inability to provide beds for the extraordinary rapid increase in the number of homeless children, families, and single adults. Now with the point-in-time count of persons in and out of the shelter system, we are in the midst of an unprecedented housing dilemma caused by the recession, foreclosures, historic high rents and radical cuts in social services by most communities and especially the state.
Rhode Island has habitually undercut funds and programs for those most in need, especially now. Forty states, for one example, have permanent housing trust funds. Not Rhode Island. Various cities throughout the country, including New England, have reduced the number of homeless, especially the chronically homeless, by providing supportive housing coupled with extensive social services. Not Rhode Island, which rejected another $10 million investment in affordable housing in the last legislative session.
Which is why these times call for radical and immediate decisions by the new governor and the General Assembly, which had an unusual number of new delegates elected.
The state’s first decision should be an immediate emergency General Assembly meeting to: Adopt a one-time emergency fund of $100 million, which would do the following:
1) Guarantee enough winter beds and services for the shelter system automatically.
2) Work to decentralize the shelter system in Providence, which takes in the homeless from all over the state. Providence has 16% of the state population but 57% of shelter beds.
3) Start closing some of the larger more expensive shelters by initiating a crash program to build supportive housing that would significantly reduce the permanent shelter population.
4) Open day care centers near shelters so that the homeless have a safe place when they are out of the shelters.
5) Create a permanent housing development fund with a five-year goal to close all shelters and house the homeless in affordable, clean and permanent apartments. The shelter system initially, after all, was meant as a temporary solution to homelessness.
6) Prevent the loss of subsidized public housing—such as 200 units slated to close in Woonsocket—by incorporating independent public housing authorities as part of the expanded housing program.
7) Create a real estate transfer tax that could bring in close to $5 million a year to link with state housing bonds.
8) Use the Rainy Day Fund, which was set up for this type of emergency need. Millions are in that fund and only a small percentage is held obviously as required by investors and buyers of state bonds.
Many of these ideas have been discussed by various housing agencies, advocates and funders but with limited success in obtaining the financial and political will to make critical and timely decisions.
This is not the time to be asking or even pleading with well-meaning citizens and non-profit and commercial funders to step forward. Recent stories in the national press already show a significant decline in donations to organizations created to help the neediest. Even the wealthy are feeling our near depression.
When will our damaged state do the right things that decency, economics and unacceptable human suffering demand?