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COMMENTARY

The ultimate solution to homelessness in R.I.: Safe and affordable housing

We all agree that more affordable housing is needed, but we need resources to help people while projects are being completed, the executive director of House of Hope says

The COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated the long-standing need for affordable housing, generating excitement among housing advocates that finally affordable housing is starting to get the attention — and investment — it so desperately needs. We are all here for it!

The ultimate solution to homelessness is safe and affordable housing. While we can look forward to the promise of affordable housing units, the reality is that the timelines for projects range from shovel-ready to conceptual. What we need are the resources to keep people alive until they are able to access these units. At the House of Hope, our mission affirms that housing is a basic human right. For this not to be a hollow promise, we have to provide for the needs of the unhoused today.

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Some believe there is currently enough shelter for everyone who is unhoused. However, as the agency doing statewide street-based outreach since 2015, and consistently through the pandemic, we see firsthand that this is not the case. As of May 2022, there are 262 Rhode Islanders who are living in what HUD calls “a place not fit for human habitation” — tents, vehicles, streets. This number will increase as people are forced to leave winter shelter, largely hosted at hotels and motels. Options are limited: there are already 935 people on waiting lists for individual and family shelters, including 385 adults, and 412 people in 121 families with children.

Far too often our team is on the receiving end of the anger, desperation, and frustration so rightly voiced by those who are unhoused. Imagine being told that safe shelter is a viable option for your family when your reality is you are out of options.

There are many reasons for this. In addition to the absolute scarcity, what shelter is available may not match the household composition of those seeking it (many shelters don’t accommodate couples or pets) or may not meet their physical or mental health needs (many shelters are not wheelchair accessible and congregate settings are triggering for people with PTSD or anxiety). The people we talk to don’t want to hear that we’re doing enough, and they don’t want to hear that their homelessness is being statistically ended. They want to hear that there is a safe bed for them tonight, and housing available on the near horizon. Right now, we cannot truthfully tell them this.

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And so, we wait. Wait for more resources to be brought to bear to safely shelter Rhode Islanders when they need it most. Wait for names to come up on never ending wait lists. Wait for an encampment to be evicted by law enforcement, leaving people with nowhere to go. Wait to hear that another person was robbed and assaulted while staying outside. Wait for our cries to be heard for humans to have a safe place to sleep at night. And this all means that we don’t have to wait long for the painful news that another life was lost on the streets. Rhode Island has chosen to make our streets a waiting room for housing, rather than act with urgency to meet the breadth of the need when it is needed – and that need is now.

Rhode Island doesn’t need to look far for innovative solutions. Last December, the City of Boston joined the ranks of 79 other communities that in the past three years have seen this human need and responded to it. Similar to models across the country, local leaders have constructed a supportive community using “rapidly deployable units” (individual, self-contained dwellings that look a bit like souped-up garden sheds) as a temporary, emergency shelter option.

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Yes, the only solution to homelessness is housing. And we need a viable bridge to get folks there. In order to ensure homelessness is indeed rare, brief, and non-recurring, more immediately available beds are needed to keep Rhode Islanders who are unhoused safe. We belong to one another, and here in 2022 Rhode Island, we have an opportunity to come to one another’s aid and do what is needed until more permanent housing solutions can be made a reality. Doing so not only benefits our unhoused neighbors, but all of us.

Laura Jaworski is the executive director of House of Hope Community Development Corp, a nonprofit serving those who are unhoused and housing insecure in Rhode Island.