WARWICK, R.I. — Just two weeks after Donna Wood gave birth to her fourth child, she hoisted herself up into the driver’s seat of her truck, wearing her red and black polo with a Honey Dew logo on it. She peered into the rearview mirror and saw his infant seat, ready for him when he could finally come home.
Her newborn son, Corey, was still in the hospital — an intrauterine stroke and a brain bleed meant he was born with severe disabilities — and Wood was exhausted, with two teenagers and an 11-year-old at home. Still, rent was due, and she had to go back to work immediately. Like always, she did what she had to do.
By late spring 2021, Corey was out of the hospital, but he required around-the-clock care. He had been diagnosed with infantile spasms, optic nerve hypoplasia, encephalomalacia, and global developmental delays. His medical equipment filled their apartment, and he often required trips to the emergency room, which meant Wood had to call out of work. Still, they were getting by — until Wood’s landlord sold the home that Wood and her children had lived in for five years.
At first, the new owners said she could stay in her apartment and possibly sign another long-term lease. But the offer was never made in writing, and this summer they told Wood that she and her family had about 20 days to pack their things and leave. (Wood said she was not behind on her rent. The homeowners did not respond to the Globe’s requests for comment.)
Wood did what she could to buy time. Under the CDC’s eviction moratorium, she was able to get another month. But then the moratorium lifted, and she received another letter under her door, telling her she and her children had to go.
At just over a year old, Corey can’t speak, crawl, or sit up on his own. His pediatric neurologist and clinical social worker at Hasbro Children’s Hospital wrote to the landlord and the housing court judge, explaining that Corey needed frequent, ongoing support from a medical team, as well as “24 hour care and supervision” from his mother. Another letter from his medical team said Corey’s medical equipment, which was necessary for his health and developmental outcomes, required space.
“Housing insecurity would put substantial stress on Corey’s family and place his health and safety at risk,” read the letter. “I feel it is medically necessary for Corey’s family to have a three-bedroom unit.”
But the letters were no use. Unlike in neighboring states, Rhode Island does not require just cause for eviction.
“I pass by an encampment on my way to work every day where people are starting fires to keep warm at night. I never thought I’d be in this situation, and here I was facing it,” said Wood. “I’m a good mom. I’m a manager at my job. I take good care of my kids. I was never in this situation before. But there’s nothing in the state that protects anybody in the situation that I’m in, even with my four children. Even with one who is incredibly disabled.”
“How is that fair? How is that humane?” she asked. “How much is someone supposed to be able to take?”
The housing crisis in Rhode Island is reaching a tipping point. Shelters, which were never designed for long-term housing, are at capacity. There is a lengthy waiting list for housing vouchers. More encampments are popping up in Providence and other cities.
More than 660 people were living outdoors in September in Rhode Island — not including the number of people fleeing their homes because of domestic violence situations.
Rhode Island has yet to spend the $1.13 billion in relief funding from the federal government, and housing advocates have called on Governor Dan McKee to use $500 million of it for housing, which had become a problem well before the pandemic. But in his “down payment” plan, which uses 10 percent of the federal funds, the governor allocated $38.5 million for child care, $32 million for small businesses, and just $29 million for housing, including $1.5 million for emergency situations.
“We need executive action now for emergency shelters. Before the winter,” said Kristina Brown, a program officer for the United Way of Rhode Island. “We know the numbers that we have are just the tip of the iceberg. Families and children hide, and they know how to hide well.”
Through Ehren Hunt, a housing specialist at Tri-County Community Action Agency, Wood was able to use funds from the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness to move into a single hotel room, at the Extended Stay in Warwick.
They’ve been there since June, all five of them crammed in a single room. Wood says there are 10 to 15 other families staying at the hotel through the same program.
Each of the kids have been sick, and the baby is “constantly sick.” Last week, he was rushed to the emergency room, again, because he was unresponsive. She takes him on drives around 4 a.m. when he wails in the room, his sobs screeching down the hall.
“But sometimes,” she said, “He just doesn’t stop. And it’s not his fault. It’s neurological.”
Wood’s 11-year-old daughter went from a social butterfly to a depressed child who would rather stay in bed, alone, than go to school. Her 15-year-old son got a job after school. Her now 20-year-old helps in any way he can, knowing the family could be kicked out of the hotel at any point. The program that’s placed them there ends on Oct. 31 for Wood and her family. Others have to vacate this week.
Hunt, from the Tri-County Community Action Agency, said Wood’s situation illustrates a “multi-systemic failure” in Rhode Island. And it’s not the only one.
“There’s a mother with cancer that’s sleeping outside in a tent with her 4-year-old right now,” said Hunt. “There’s social workers and housing specialists quitting constantly because they are sick of telling people, ‘There’s nothing I can do for you. You’re going to have to sleep outside tonight.’ It’s demoralizing.”
Wood says she found an apartment in Warwick for $2,300 a month, starting Nov. 1. But Section 8 still has to inspect the property, so there’s a chance she and her family might not be able to move in.
If approved by Section 8, the family will finally have stable housing again. If not, they’ll be out on the street — even the baby and his medical equipment.
“I didn’t do anything to deserve this mess we are in. I’ve always worked hard. I’m a good person and I’ve raised my kids to be. But here we are, lost and homeless,” Wood said, as she choked back tears. “And I don’t know how much more I’m supposed to be able to handle.”