PROVIDENCE — About 28 percent of renters in the Ocean State reported that they could not keep up with their rent from Sept. 15 to Oct. 22, according to newly released data by Rhode Island Kids Count, slightly more than the one in every five renters in the US who reported that they could not pay their monthly rent during the peak of the pandemic.
And if a family is pushed out of their home or gets evicted, shelter is not always guaranteed in Rhode Island. Shelters are at capacity, and in Rhode Island people do not automatically have a right to it. As of Nov. 16, 1,013 Rhode Islanders were seeking shelter, and 45 percent of them were in families with children and 26 percent were children under the age of 18.
“Rhode Island is facing a housing crisis,” said Elizabeth Burke Bryant, the executive director of Rhode Island Kids Count, “One that began long before the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Rhode Island Kids Count, a nonprofit that works to improve the health, education, and economic well-being of children, released its latest policy brief on Tuesday. It showed that poor quality, unaffordable, or crowded housing has a negative impact on children.
“When housing costs more than a family can afford, children often live in low-quality and overcrowded housing and move frequently, all of which have been linked to lower educational achievement and increased risk of homelessness,” read the brief. “When children live in high-quality housing that is safe, affordable, and located in well-resourced neighborhoods, they do better in school and their parents report better mental health.”
The majority of the housing stock in the state was built prior to the 1980s, tent cities are sprawling out across the state, costs to rent — or own — a home are rising, and the financial pressures, issues around job security, and a lack of affordable child care that many faced prior to the pandemic have been exacerbated since it began. The briefing also said that many parents were forced to leave their jobs or cut their hours due to a lack of in-person schooling.
Instead, many families live in “deep poverty,” said the brief, where episodes of homelessness are part of a cycle of housing instability that often includes living in housing that is unaffordable or unsafe, doubling up with families or friends, and being evicted.
“The housing and homelessness crisis disproportionately hurts families with children, particularly families of color. It is urgent that we invest in our state’s housing infrastructure to support our families, our communities, and our economy,” said Burke Bryant.
Rhode Island Kids Count listed 14 recommendations the state could take to help unhoused families, particularly those with children under the age of 18, including preventing evictions by offering free legal representation to tenants and instituting a statewide eviction moratorium, sealing eviction records that typically make it difficult to find a landlord willing to rent to them in the future, and reducing barriers to subsidized housing.
They also recommended building more affordable housing using funds from the housing bonds, increasing the state real estate transfer tax, and using federal funds from the American Rescue Plan (ARPA), but did not recommend a number of units the nonprofit wanted to see built, or any amount of funds the state should dedicate.
From Oct. 8 to Nov. 6, Kids Count found that 574 Rhode Islanders slept outside or in their cars for at least one night and 156 were in households with children. Surveyors found that almost half — or 44 percent — of the adults in these households with children had no income. During that same 30-day period, 62 children in Rhode Island under the age of 18 slept outside or in their family’s car for at least one night, Kids Count found.
In all of 2020, the state’s domestic violence network provided services to 9,259 individuals, including 486 children. According to the briefing, 147 children and 186 adults stayed in domestic violence shelters, 73 children and 54 adults lived in domestic violence transitional housing (which are longer-term private apartments for victims of domestic violence), 10 families moved into permanent supportive housing, and 42 families were able to access rapid-rehousing.
And the situation is only getting worse, according to the nonprofit.
A point-in-time count conducted in January 2021 showed a dramatic increase in unhoused people, including a 26 percent increase in households with children. Not only do unhoused children have higher rates of acute and chronic health problems than low-income children who have homes, but compared to their peers, unhoused children have four times as many respiratory infections, twice as many ear infections, and five times as many gastrointestinal problems.
In schools, homeless children are ore likely be chronically absent, have lower academic achievement, and change schools more often than those who have secure housing, according to the report.
Kids Count also recommended guaranteeing immediate access to emergency shelters or funds for brief hotel stays for families in crisis, providing housing and other economic supports to youth over the age of 18 exiting the foster care system, and to fill the position of deputy secretary of commerce and housing to oversee housing initiatives and develop a statewide housing plan.
“Housing is health. Housing is family well-being. Housing is educational success,” said Stephanie Geller, deputy director of Rhode Island Kids Count. “Housing is the very foundation of a child’s future.”
Alexa Gagosz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.