Severe mental and physical ailments have stymied efforts to get clients into the working world. And managers, after moving a handful of the most troubled clients from apartment to apartment in a bid to find the right fit, have abandoned the effort; the program that was meant to house everyone has left some on the street.

But Housing First is moving to buttress daytime activities for clients. The program is in the process of hiring vocational specialists. And it offers services even for those it has evicted.

Jean, for one, says getting his own place has been a life-changing experience. He was, unlike many of his cohorts, sober when he entered housing. But the stability of a home has proven invaluable in coming to grips with a mental illness he long denied.

He speaks, with the startling insight of someone in therapy, of accepting a condition that does daily damage to his dignity.

His apartment – a mattress, a television, a pair of computers, and little else – has given him a foundation, some hope. “It feels good,” he said. “I don’t think I’m where I want to be, but I’m better than I was a year ago.

“I want to finish school, get a good job, drive a car like other people - and just live a normal, decent life.”

SEARCHING FOR A CHAMPION
But if solving the most pressing part of Rhode Island’s homelessness problem is, in some respects, an extraordinarily simple proposition – subsidize a few hundred units for the chronically homeless – it is, in others, maddeningly complex.

There are, first, major political challenges. Placing 500 to 1000 of the chronically homeless in apartments, with the appropriate services, would cost tens of millions of dollars: not an insurmountable figure, but certainly a significant one.

With shortfalls running in the hundreds of millions in Rhode Island, despite recent reports that tax receipts may be on the rise, the competition for state dollars – and the federal money they can leverage – is intense.

And while a major one-shot investment that took all the chronically homeless off the street might allow, say, the state prison to quickly close a wing and save real money, the more likely route – incremental change – does not hold out the same hope for legislators consumed by the immediate fiscal crisis.

A few more empty cells next year will not allow the warden to lay off guards or cut maintenance costs. Placing 50 more homeless in apartments will not allow the state to close down a dozen shelters.

The problem, as Jim Ryczek, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless acknowledges, is that advocates are asking a cash-starved state to carry two systems at once: a stopgap collection of shelter cots and emergency room beds alongside a growing stock of permanent housing.

And even if the state makes substantial progress in housing the chronically homeless, it is not clear that the Rhode Island treasury will be so much better off: if the state absorbs some substantial portion of the bills racked up by the toughest street cases, at present, so does the federal government, local hospitals, and everyone who pays for health insurance.

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