How Rhode Island can eliminate homelessness

The concept is as simple as it is radical: give the homeless a place to live, with no strings attached
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  May 14, 2010

THE ADVOCATE Don Boucher, the program director of Rhode Island Housing First.

These are dark times for Rhode Island’s homeless.

The economy’s ugly slide has proven ruinous for thousands. Smith Hill is cutting the safety net in the face of multi-million dollar deficits. The shelter population is at an all-time high.

And in the fall, the courts dismantled a series of tent cities that made the invisible visible for a time.

But amid the heartache, there is a curious bit of resolve, even boldness, among the state’s small band of homeless advocates: Rhode Island, they say, could end homelessness in a decade.

And they may be right.

This is a small state, after all. And its homeless population is even smaller, estimated at some 4500 to 5000 per year. The overwhelming majority – like the overwhelming majority of the homeless nationwide – are on the street temporarily, thrown into crisis by a fire, a lost job, or a break with a violent husband.

The chronically homeless – out on the boulevard year after year – number just 500. Maybe 1000 at the most. House them, advocates say, and the state can go a long way toward ending homelessness.

“It’s not really all that complex,” says Noreen Shawcross, former executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless and current chief of the state’s Office of Housing and Community Development.

Shawcross’s prescription might have seemed hopelessly naive not so long ago. The chronically homeless, often mentally ill and drug addicted, stymied policymakers for decades.

But after years of failure, advocates say they know what works. They say they have the answer. All Rhode Island needs to end homelessness, they argue, is the political will.

Jean, who asked the Phoenix to withhold his last name, still remembers his mother’s break with reality some 15 years ago. “We woke up one day and all the windows were open, it was cold as hell,” he says. “She was upstairs and she wasn’t talking in her right mind.”

It was a signature moment in the disintegration of his family life. And a sign of what was to come for Jean himself.

He would struggle with mental illness, alcohol, and marijuana. The Army National Guard discharged him early. Jean, 31, was in and out of the shelters, in and out of jail. He felt hopeless. Angry.

And then, last year, staffers with a small program called Housing First Rhode Island did something remarkable: they handed him the keys to an apartment, no strings attached.

This “housing first” approach, ascendant nationwide, is on some level quite simple: give the homeless a home. But in the three-decade course of homelessness policy, it also represents a radical break.

For years, service providers required the homeless to work their way up from a shelter to transitional housing, getting sober and practicing life skills along the way. Only when they were “ready” could they qualify for permanent housing.

Trouble was, the hardcore homeless struggled to meet the clean-and-sober standard. They lingered on the street. They wound up warehoused in shelters that were originally designed as temporary refuge.

Then in the early ’90s, New York City pioneered the new approach: instead of requiring the chronically homeless to get housing-ready, providers placed even the most destructive clients in apartments right away.

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