R.I. urged to create more ‘deeply affordable’ apartments to counter homelessness

The number of people who stayed at least one night in a shelter in Rhode Island has been increasing for the past several years, despite an improved economy./COURTESY HOUSING WORKS RI AT ROGER WILLIAMS UNIVERSITY.
THE NUMBER OF people who stayed at least one night in a shelter in Rhode Island has been increasing for the past several years, despite an improved economy. / COURTESY HOUSINGWORKS RI AT ROGER WILLIAMS UNIVERSITY

PROVIDENCE – Rhode Island has an increasing number of homeless individuals and families and will need to build as many as 2,500 truly affordable rental homes over five years to meet current demand.

In addition, the state needs to significantly increase the financial resources dedicated to providing housing for families and individuals who are homeless, according to a report released Wednesday by HousingWorks RI at Roger Williams University.

The report, “How to End Long-Term Homelessness in Rhode Island,” was prepared and written by Eric L. Hirsch, with assistance from Annette Mann Bourne. Hirsch is a professor of sociology at Providence College whose expertise is in homelessness and urban sociology.

They recommend a shift from emergency and temporary shelters, such as Harrington Hall in Cranston, to more-stable and sustaining apartments that can provide stability for homeless individuals and families.

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Their findings include:

  • A move from temporary and emergency shelters into a more-stable, housing-based system will require 2,500 “deeply affordable” rental units and cost $20 million annually over five years. This would represent a doubling of the current funding commitment.
  • The state now provides 10 permanent rental subsidies for chronically homeless people, and 10 for veterans, at a cost of $200,000 annually. The need is for 100 subsidies that would cost $1 million.
  • Neighboring states Massachusetts and Connecticut are consistently devoting more per capita funds than Rhode Island to housing for homeless populations, including as much as 12 times more in Massachusetts.
  • Rhode Island has between 4,000 to 5,000 people a year who experience homelessness, only some of whom seek emergency shelter beds. Of those who visited shelters, 539 were families, with nearly 1,000 children represented.
  • An increase in homelessness statewide in recent years has been driven primarily by economic factors, including the cost of housing that has risen three times the rate of inflation since 1980.

The economic factors that are driving homelessness in Rhode Island include stagnant wages and increasing housing costs. And the private market for housing has not met the needs of either workforce housing for Rhode Islanders or for workers at the low- to mid-income ranges.

More than 64,000 households in Rhode Island pay more than 50 percent of their income toward housing, Hirsch reported, which is making many vulnerable.

Moving from a shelter-based system to a housing-based system will require new funds to address the problem, he said, and a reliable stock of permanent and affordable homes.

His recommendations for Rhode Island include creating a cabinet-level position in a Department of Housing and Community Development, which would put more emphasis on economic development and job-growth impact of building more housing in the state.

And take steps to close Harrington Hall in Cranston, the state’s largest emergency shelter, and provide permanent supportive housing for those in need.

Double the state’s “Rapid Re-Housing” funds from $2 million to $4 million annually, to help families and individuals who are in need of short-term rental assistance to avoid homelessness.

“Ending long-term homelessness for individuals and families needs to be an urgent priority for all Rhode Islanders,” the report stated.

Mary MacDonald is a staff writer for the PBN. Contact her at macdonald@pbn.com.