PROVIDENCE — Standing in the State House rotunda Thursday, Angela Howard-McParland pointed toward the nearby Independent Man, noting that the gilded statue has been removed from atop the capitol’s marble dome for just the second time in history.
“In 1975, he was removed to be re-plated with gold — his original gilded exterior had worn off, as shiny exteriors often do,” she said. “This time, I understand that the repair needed is a crack in the marble foundation on which he stands.”
So, Howard-McParland, “Let’s repair the foundation for Rhode Islanders, too,” so that residents don’t have to continue to struggle with poverty, hunger, and homelessness. “A shiny golden appearance is one thing,” she said. “But continuing our work on building a foundation for a just society will save and improve the lives of those made poor in the system.”
Howard-McParland delivered the keynote address as the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty held its 16th annual vigil at the State House. A wide range of faith leaders took turns reading aloud the names of elected leaders, praying for them to lead with compassion, wisdom, and care. The event came two days after the House and Senate convened for the first day of the 2024 legislative session.
“Let’s begin by acknowledging the problem,” Howard-McParland said.
In 2023, the overall and child poverty rates increased by the largest amount on record in more than 50 years, and in Rhode Island, more than 113,000 people, or nearly 11 percent, of the population was living in poverty, she said, citing census data. The poverty rate for Latino residents was nearly triple that of white residents, and the poverty rate for Black residents was nearly double that of white residents, she said.
“We also need to acknowledge the housing crisis as a major contributor to poverty,” Howard-McParland said. Full-time workers in Rhode Island need to earn $27.28 an hour to afford “a modest two-bedroom apartment at a fair market rate,” and at Rhode Island’s $14 minimum wage, people would have to work nearly 80 hours a week to afford that rent, she said.
“The reality is that poverty is a policy choice,” Howard-McParland said. “And it’s one we don’t need to keep making.”
The Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty outlined a series of legislative priorities, including:
- Free breakfast and lunch for all of the state’s public school students
- A $250 million housing bond
- A bill of rights for tenants
- Increasing the minimum wage
- An increase in monthly cash assistance benefits
- “Green justice zones” that would protect neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards
- A system where people would pay utility rates based on their income
House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi spoke during the vigil, saying, “The issues you care about are the issues we care about in the General Assembly: housing insecurity, food insecurity, economic stability, healthcare, equity, and justice.”
Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, noted housing has been one of his top priorities since he became speaker. “All positive outcomes start with a good, safe home,” he said. “Children do better in school. Adults are better prepared for their jobs. Families’ physical and mental health is better when they have a stable place to live. Period. Everyone deserves a safe, stable place to live that they can afford. It’s a matter of equity.”
Shekarchi noted the Assembly passed all but one of the 14 housing bills he unveiled last year. For example, the legislature enacted a law to prohibit rental application fees, he said, noting that the House bill was introduced by Representative Cherie L. Cruz, a Pawtucket Democrat who was at the vigil.
“We heard from many of you that this was a huge barrier to housing,” he said. “We heard from families who spent hundreds or even thousands of dollars on rental applications but still couldn’t find an apartment.”
While those housing bills are now law, Shekarchi said, “There are still communities who are opposed to legislation that we’ve passed. They don’t want more housing. They want to maintain the status quo. And all of us here know the status quo is not working.”
So, he said, “Until all Rhode Islanders have a safe place to live and enough food to eat, our efforts in the General Assembly will continue.”
Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, and Democratic Governor Daniel J. McKee did not speak at the vigil.
But McKee’s deputy chief of staff, Pastor Chris Abhulime, did speak, saying the administration has been “laser focused” on reducing poverty and increasing income. For example, he noted the minimum wage has risen to $14 per hour, wage theft is now a felony, and the state budget provided $3.6 million for the Rhode Island Community Food Bank.
Abhulime called reducing poverty a “noble mission,” saying, “We recognize that only by lifting every voice of every person, every religion, every creed, and every background will we solve this pressing and persistent issue.” He quoted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, saying, “We are all tied together by a single garment of destiny.”
Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman delivered the opening prayer, noting that 13 months ago a group of homeless people were sleeping in tents outside the State House.
“Many of us stood together right here at the State House in the bitter cold and wind in support of the poor and the homeless who are camping right here in canvas tents,” he said. “In a nation as wealthy as ours, in a state as blessed as Rhode Island, the presence of dozens of people living in tents was ugly and shameful. It was an abomination, oh God, a black mark on a society too indifferent to care about our most vulnerable neighbors.”
The McKee administration ended up telling those in the homeless encampment outside the State House to leave or face fines or arrest, saying they’d be provided with emergency shelter beds. But advocates said that offer might not be fulfilled immediately.
“We said to ourselves, ‘Oh God, the sight of people suffering in our midst is too much to bear and reminds us of how far we are from your vision of justice and fairness,’” Voss-Altman said. “And then we said, ‘Let us remove these people and their suffering from our sight.’” But, he said, “Despite our best efforts to look away, we know, Eternal One, that you have given us all of the tools we need to create the world you have envisioned.”