WEST WARWICK, R.I. — Just days after testifying before the House Judiciary Committee in support of bills inspired in part by their housing situation, the Strong family, whose spiral into homelessness was documented in the Boston Globe in December, are still struggling to find housing.
Kiel Strong, Holly Barchie, and their four young children had been staying with a family member since the end of September 2022, paying $800 a month plus utility bills for the entire house in order to rent a single bedroom for the six of them. They continued to search for a home of their own. The children started school.
But others were staying at the family member’s house as well — eight to nine people crammed into a three-bedroom house — and it became too much. A friend offered to let them live in the home she rented in West Warwick.
Once the friend’s landlord saw the eviction on the Strong family’s record, however, he asked them to leave.
They had never owed their former landlord money; he asked them to leave so he could rent the apartment to a family member. A judge had given them a letter confirming that the eviction was not their fault. But unlike other states, no-fault evictions are not sealed in Rhode Island, and the Strong family’s has made it nearly impossible for them to find a home to rent.
After they were evicted, the Strong family stayed in hotels and motels for months, spending more than $40,000 — all of their savings and most of their take-home pay — trying to keep their children from having to sleep outdoors while they waited for a spot in a family shelter.
“And now we’re back in the same situation we were before,” Barchie told the Globe on Saturday. She said she felt “defeated” for her entire family. “My kids don’t deserve to live like this.”
“We’ve already spent our entire savings on a hotel,” she added “We need a landlord to rent to us. We need a home for our children. Not a Band-Aid.”
The Strong family is here in the State House, waiting to be able to testify on one of two proposed bills that would ban rental application fees.— Alexa Gagosz (@AlexaGagosz) March 2, 2023
Representative @DavidMoralesRI stopped by to chat with them in the overflow area. @Globe_RI https://t.co/tzYStM6GcP pic.twitter.com/3cirgi1P1F
The Strongs have been working with a housing specialist at Tri-County Community Action Agency, which secured two hotel rooms for the family for at least a week in West Warwick to ensure the children did not sleep outside again. The rooms are being paid for through the Family Care Community Partnerships, or FCCP, which is a voluntary program for children at risk and is the Department of Children, Youth, and Families’ primary prevention resource for the state.
Rhode Island defines individuals and families as “homeless” if they lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. If they are staying in a hotel that they are paying for themselves, that doesn’t count — the Strongs had to live outdoors, in tents, in 2022 in order to try to qualify for shelter. DCYF began paying for hotel rooms for families with children at risk of sleeping outside in late December, after the Strong family’s struggles were featured in the Globe, according to sources in the housing community. But it’s unclear how long that funding could last.
Barchie is working as an assistant manager at a restaurant until she can return to her full-time job as a remote customer service specialist. Strong is a roofer, but was laid off for the winter. Due to the high costs of child care, he stays with the children — ages 10, 7, 3, and 2 — while Barchie is at work. A fund-raiser in December raised enough money for a car, so Barchie could get to work, and for a down payment on an apartment. But they can’t find someone who will rent to them.
“Money is not the object. Getting to meet a landlord and having that landlord say yes, they will rent to us, is the problem,” said Barchie. “It’s all about applications and who is ‘best qualified.’”
When applying for two- to four-bedroom apartments, they’ve tried offering several months rent up front, along with a down payment. They’ve paid $5,000 or more in application fees. They’ve tried to improve their credit scores. But landlords say it’s not enough. Some say they have “too many children” to live in a single apartment.
On Thursday, the Strongs testified in front of the House Judiciary Committee in support of a bill sponsored by Representative David Morales, a Providence Democrat, that would prohibit landlords from charging rental application fees. While Rhode Island allows landlords to charge fees ranging from $11 to $100 per rental application, other states, including Massachusetts and Vermont, prohibit such fees.
A heart-warming moment between the Strong family and @JoeShekarchi ahead of their testimony in front of the Judiciary Committee. @Globe_RI pic.twitter.com/kCQPIYwYEm— Alexa Gagosz (@AlexaGagosz) March 2, 2023
During the testimony, Strong’s 3-year-old daughter, Andrea, sat on his lap. He told the committee that rental application fees were discouraging to homeless families, especially when paying them seemed to never result in getting a home. With the lack of callbacks and dozens of rental applications they filled out, Strong said he felt like landlords were profiting on application fees on the backs of Rhode Islanders struggling to find a place to live.
The $5,000 they spent on rental application fees “sounds like a lot. It is a lot,” said Strong. “But there were weeks we looked at five apartments. That’s $500 [in fees] that you don’t get back.”
Several members of the committee thanked the Strongs for sharing their story and for showing up to testify with their children. Some promised to help the family or pass laws to alleviate the burdens families in Rhode Island felt during the housing crisis.
“I can’t snap my fingers and fix it today. But I want to let you know that behind us, and in front of us, are all these screens with words that are just words on the lawbooks,” said Representative Jason Knight, the second vice chair of the Judiciary Committee. “It’s hard, sometimes, to sort of read the law and think about how it works in real life ... and I’m a lawyer. When we hear about a story like yours, and read it through the excellent reporting in the Globe, it hits home in a way that is a killer.”
“Your whole ordeal... is going to make some change,” said Knight. “You have affected the conversation in a way that not many regular citizens can.”
Part of Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi’s housing legislative package introduced last week is a bill from Representative Cherie L. Cruz, a Pawtucket Democrat, who serves on the Judiciary Committee, that also bans these fees.
“We’ve got two problems here. One: we’ve got a piece of legislation that fixes [one of the] larger problems,” said Chairman Robert E. Craven, a North Kingstown Democrat. “And we’ve got a family of six who doesn’t have a home and has spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to find a place to live.”
“I promise you, I’m a pain in the neck,” added Craven. “I’m going to fix it.”
On Monday, Barchie grew emotional as she talked about trying to “put on a smile for the kids” so they don’t stress themselves out.
“Every time my husband or I leave to go to work or the store, my kids are always asking if we found a home to live in yet,” said Barchie. “Imagine a 3-year-old asking about where he’s going to live? That’s our reality. It’s heartbreaking to have our kids come to us and say this.”
She asked: “When there seems to be no end in sight, what do we even say?”
Alexa Gagosz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.