PROVIDENCE — She was 15 years old when she and her mother moved away from Kennesaw, Georgia. Her mom was addicted to drugs, and soon after they arrived in Rhode Island she was removed from her mother’s home and placed with her stepfather.
After a year, he told her one day that she would have to leave. He said, “There’s not enough room here for the both of us.”
She found herself in the foster system, placed with an older cousin who verbally and mentally abused her, calling her “retarded” and a “dumb ass.” The abuse would get violent and physical, even in front of the older cousin’s young children.
“For a thousand-and-one reasons, it was necessary that I got out of there,” said Ann, who is now 21 (The Globe is referring to her by her middle name for her safety).
For the next six months, she lived in a homeless shelter, where the rules were strict and where a single hot meal a day was provided.
She’s now spending $200 to live on a couch in Providence at her younger sister’s apartment. She is ready to move on with her life, go back into the computer science program she had been in at the Community College of Rhode Island and have her own, stable place.
But Rhode Island’s housing crisis is at a tipping point. Shelters, which were never designed for long-term housing, are at capacity. There is a lengthy waiting list for housing vouchers that can be years-long. More encampments are popping up in Providence and other cities.
Youth aging out of the foster care system, like Ann, are especially vulnerable to experiencing homelessness and often forgotten, said Lisa Guillette, the executive director of Foster Forward, a nonprofit that helps empower those who have been impacted by foster care. Their clients are typically between 18 and 26.
“Especially when it comes to the BIPOC community, people want to believe a narrative that this is about personal responsibility and some kind of individual failure,” said Guillette.
The cost of housing, experts say, is why more than 660 people were living outdoors in September in Rhode Island — which does not include the number of people fleeing their homes because of domestic violence. More than 3,500 children lived in foster families or other non-relative heads of household, according to the 2021 Rhode Island Kids Count Fact Book. Another 700 lived in group homes.
Ann works two jobs, as a cashier at a local Stop & Shop, and as a seasonal worker at GameStop. She earns social security disability insurance each month, but she still can’t afford her own apartment.
“Is it so much to ask for to just want a safe place to live? There’s this stereotype out there that homeless people are gross, addicts, and lazy,” said Ann. “I do work, I don’t have a record or do drugs, I have my [high school] diploma, and so it shouldn’t be this hard.”
Guillette said the nonprofit recently bought a three-family house to help put kids aging out of foster care into affordable apartments. She said she needs 110 units, and is reaching out to other institutions and business leaders to partner with.
“But it’s the system that’s rigged for failure. These young people are smart, but they’ve had it really hard, and are struggling to get out from under the mistakes of others.”
About 20,000 youth 18 to 21 across the country age out of foster care annually, which means the state was not able to find an adoptive family or reunify them with their biological family. And 25 percent of this population experience homelessness within the first year they leave foster care, and 50 percent will be homeless within the first four years.
When Rhode Islanders, like Ann, do work full-time at a minimum wage job, they’ll likely be cost burdened (which means that more than 30 percent of their annual income goes to housing costs).
According to the 2021 Housing Fact Book by Housing Works R.I. at Roger Williams University, Burrillville is the only municipality where a household earning an income of $36,078, which is the state’s median renter income, could affordably rent an average two-bedroom apartment.
In fact, a minimum wage employee would have to work 78 hours each week to afford an average two-bedroom apartment in Rhode Island, according to the Out of Reach report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
At Foster Forward’s East Providence headquarters, “drop ins” are offered three times a week, where kids can come by, charge their phone, get a hot meal, do laundry, and get support services such as help filling out housing and Section 8 applications.
And in many cases, there are success stories.
Tarriana Fermi, 23, had to start living in group homes in the greater Providence area when she was just 13. Her mom was and is constantly on drugs, she said. When she was younger, her mother used bath salts, then cocaine, she became an alcoholic, and is now using crack. Fermi’s two younger brothers, now 10 and 12, have been taken away from her before, which Fermi said makes them better off.
But she is weeks away from a Section 8 inspection on an apartment that she can move into in Woonsocket. If approved, Fermi, who wants to become a plumber and possibly join a union, said she will feel secure for the first time in her life. And it’s when, she said, she’ll be fighting for custody of her two brothers.
“My mom failed them. The system allowed them to go back with her, and it failed them. Who is going to teach them everything they need to know? I can’t fail them too,” said Fermi.
When asked what the state or those who make decisions could do to help young people like Fermi, she said, “Just care. And pay attention. Stories like mine are sad. But if you look around, these stories surround you.”