The latest statewide Point-In-Time Count data uncovered 1,810 Rhode Islanders experiencing homelessness on the night of January 25, 2023. Additionally, 334 Rhode Islanders were unsheltered – a 370 percent increase from 2019. While these numbers are fluid, the trend over the past five years shows homelessness is rising, not decreasing, in the Ocean State. The data tells us that homelessness is a structural deficiency, and not a mysterious surge in people down on their luck.
If we believe housing is a human right, we must advocate for access to safe and affordable housing in every city and town in Rhode Island. Each community must look critically at how they can contribute to emergency short-term housing, and longer-term affordable housing. This is nothing new. Rhode Island has had affordable housing targets for decades, yet only seven communities currently meet those targets. One small step that can be taken at the local level is for cities to create or amend zoning laws to make it easier to build more housing units. Each community needs to support housing development and an ethos of inclusion at the community level. We must reject “Not In My Backyard” and instead support zoning, development, and programs that support all of our neighbors.
The 200 people recently displaced from the Cranston Street Armory represent a small share of Rhode Islanders experiencing homelessness. The Armory closure resulted in local and state officials coming together to consider options for relocating those who once used the warming center as a shelter. Under Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor’s leadership, we are beginning to see statewide collaboration to address the needs of the unhoused. But it cannot stop there. Solutions will require cooperation, planning and execution among government, front-line service providers, the business community, faith institutions, philanthropic organizations, and professionals from the medical, behavioral health and public health communities. This level of consideration and cooperation needs to extend to every person experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity in our state.
While winter and cold weather have passed, the blistering heat of summer is upon us and is just as dangerous for Rhode Islanders experiencing homelessness. And while the cold of winter will soon return, there are no signs that the need for emergency shelter will be decreasing. We must proactively plan now for the emergency shelters that we know will be needed this winter. The Cranston Armory warming center was a stopgap measure to fill a critical need – and as the data shows, that critical need remains.
What more can we do? Volunteer and donate to any one of the service organizations who are on the front lines of this crisis every day. Hold local elected officials accountable for supporting state and local legislation to address root causes, as we have seen with the legislative package supported by Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and many in the General Assembly.
Rhode Island’s housing crisis has been years in the making and will require a long-term, consistent and coordinated involvement at all levels of state and local government. This crisis is too big to ignore and will require each of us to support creating safe, affordable housing and make life in Rhode Island livable for all.
Susan Gunter is president of the board of directors of the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness. Caitlin Frumerie is RICEH executive director.