PROVIDENCE — Holding hand-written signs that read, “Housing is a human right,” and “End homelessness now,” about 50 advocates for the homeless marched to Governor Dan McKee’s office Monday, demanding the state declare a state of emergency over the inadequate number of shelter beds available this winter. Advocates and outreach workers say they are expecting more people will be forced to live outside this winter than at any other point in decades.
“I’ve been tracking this data since 1990. We’ve never had this many people outside as winter is approaching,” said Eric Hirsch, a Providence College sociology professor and co-chair of the state’s Homeless Management Information System Steering Committee.
Approximately 1,260 people — including children — were waiting for shelter in Rhode Island, according to data by the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness as of Sept. 24. That’s an increase of 70 people compared to the week prior. Of those, 405 people reported that they were living outside or in their cars between Sept. 11 and Sept. 24. Some say that’s only skimming the surface of the problem.
“Those are only the people who reported being outside or that we can find,” said Ehren Hunt, a housing specialist at Tri-County Community Action Agency, on a recent call regarding the data. “There are plenty of people living in the middle of the woods. Then there are those who are living in their cars with children and are hiding because they’re afraid of DCYF getting involved.”
The Rhode Island Department of Housing announced on Friday it was distributing $3.5 million to six local organizations to create 231 shelter beds in addition to the 64 beds that were funded this summer. But housing specialists say that’s not enough.
One of the main issues, Hirsch said, is that nonprofits and providers have been unable to identify sites — both rapidly deployable and in existing buildings — for shelter beds. For example, Pallet Shelters is a Washington-based company produces tiny prefabricated homes that can be erected in half an hour. In Rhode Island, House of Hope CDC has a proposed a group of those tiny homes called ECHO (Emergency COVID Housing Opportunities) Village. But after two years, they haven’t been able to find a location for the village. “We need the governor’s help to override the ‘Not in My Backyard’ sentiments that we find in the towns and cities,” said Hirsch.
Kristina Brown, a program officer at the United Way of Rhode Island, said homelessness can be an “invisible issue” to those who live outside certain neighborhoods in Providence, Woonsocket, and other cities where many social services are concentrated. “There’s a lot of ways people can detach from these issues,” said Brown, who explained this detachment could be fueling “NIMBY-ism.” “But the people who are suffering are not just from Providence. They are your neighbors.”
Brown said the unhoused population represents “every town and city” in Rhode Island.
It does not appear that McKee will declare homelessness an emergency, but while it’s a relatively new strategy to combat the issue, other cities on the West Coast have declared states of emergency over the last two decades.
In 2015, Hawaii Governor David Ige declared a state of emergency to deal with homelessness just after state officials cleared one of the nation’s largest homeless encampments. At the time, Hawaii had the highest rate of homelessness per capita of any state in the nation. Seven years later, 18 in every 10,000 people in Hawaii were experiencing sheltered homelessness, better than Massachusetts, Washington D.C., New York, Vermont, and Alaska, according to a 2021 report to Congress by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In 2002, San Diego had a state of emergency in place due to a “severe shortage” of affordable housing. In the last 10 years, several West Coast cities, including Portland, Oregon; Seattle; and Los Angeles, have declared states of emergency due to housing and shelter crises. Declaring homelessness an emergency allowed local governments to reduce bureaucratic barriers such as bypassing zoning requirements to use city-owned property to open and maintain shelter, to quickly redirect funds, suspend regulations to contract private providers, and prioritize homelessness.
Matt Sheaff, a spokesman with McKee’s office, told the Globe Monday that there are “limits on the governor’s emergency powers.”
Hirsch said even if McKee could not do much legally by declaring an emergency, “it would have great value in showing that he sees this as an urgent crisis.”
In August, McKee signed a long-sought bill that dedicates $250 million toward affordable housing for the state’s low-income residents. It’s a historic investment, a portion of which could create up to 1,500 new income-restricted units across the state. But the size of these apartments, and whether they could fit individuals or whole families with children, is still in limbo. Housing Secretary Josh Saal told the Globe previously that it would be necessary to draft a statewide housing plan before moving forward.
It’s unclear when the statewide housing report could be released. Chris Raia, a spokesman for the state housing department, said the plan won’t be publicly released until sometime in 2023.
In the meantime, Raia said the state revamped the statewide Landlord Incentive Program with Amos House, which has helped more than 100 vulnerable households secure permanent housing; converted shuttered Memorial Hospital’s seasonal shelter into a year-round shelter; designated $36 million through the first wave of the State Fiscal Recovery Fund to enhance the Consolidated Homeless Fund; and created a $10 million Housing Production Fund to assist individuals at risk of homelessness.
While some of the programs have immediate impact, it could take months — if not years — for many others to make a difference in people’s lives. At the same time, housing costs are increasing and outpacing wages.
According to the Out of Reach report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition that was released earlier this year, Rhode Islanders in 2022 need to earn a minimum of $24.32 per hour to afford an average two-bedroom apartment at fair market rate. Yet the state’s minimum wage is $12.25 per hour and won’t reach $15 per hour until 2024.
More than half of Rhode Island’s lowest-income renters spend more than half of their income on housing alone, and are at risk of homelessness, according to “The Gap” report, which looks at the shortage of affordable homes across the country. Rhode Island has just 51 affordable and available rental homes for every 100 extremely low-income households, who are those with incomes at or below the poverty level, or 30 percent of the area median income.
There are 49,032 extremely low-income households in Rhode Island and a shortage of 24,050 affordable and available rental homes — which is an 11 percent increase in shortages compared to 2021, according to The Gap. “I think that number is fairly conservative,” noted Cortney Nicolato, the CEO of United Way of Rhode Island, on a call Monday.
So people who do have housing vouchers, which help pay the rent, are at risk of losing them. If they can’t find an apartment by the six-month deadline, the vouchers will be taken away. Some people wait years to get on a housing voucher list.
“If you have a safe space to live in another state, we’ll send you there,” said Hunt. “I just sent a mom and her daughter to Oregon because they had family out there. It was a one-way ticket. They can’t come back. There’s nothing here for them.”
Nicolato said United Way is available to the state to help form the statewide housing plan, which she said should bring in providers, nonprofits, land-use and zoning experts, among others into the planning.
“We’re seeing the result of what happens when a state has had decades of under-investment,” said Nicolato. “Finally we have the funding and momentum to start fixing the housing crisis. But if we don’t tackle it the right way, we’ll keep having the same conversations about how hundreds of Rhode Islanders are sleeping outside in the cold every winter.”