And John Joyce, a formerly homeless man who was a leader of the tent city movement, argues that Rhode Island’s shelter operators are too invested in maintaining their own programs to fully embrace the new approach. “The system,” he says, “is stuck on stupid.”

Systems reform is no small thing. Roman, of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, says it may amount to half the solution. But there are bigger, structural problems that would stymie even the most efficient bureaucracy: namely, growing income inequality and the surge in housing costs.

A recent report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that rent and utilities for a non-luxury, two-bedroom apartment in Rhode Island now averages $983.

There are states with higher rents. But taking into account what the average renter earns state-to-state, Rhode Island is second only to Hawaii when it comes to the financial burden on renters.

Hirsch, of Providence College, says the private housing market in Rhode Island – and nationwide – is simply broken. “Let’s say you’re working minimum wage, say you’re making $14,000 or $15,000 a year, should we really expect someone like that to pay $12,000 a year for their rent?,” he says. “What kind of society forces a situation like that on people?”

The only answer, he says, is government intervention. And the most promising action on that front, Hirsch says, is not in Providence, but in Washington.

The shift began with the Bush Administration, which embraced the housing first model as a cost-effective expression of the president’s “compassionate conservative” agenda. But Democrats in Congress and in the White House are going a step further.

Senator Jack Reed, a former Army Ranger, is perhaps best known for his expertise in military matters. But advocates say he has quietly emerged as the single most important advocate for the homeless in Congress.

This is no surprise for the close observer; Reed has long had a passion for the issue. In the early 80s, as a lawyer, he did pro bono work for Amos House, the Providence social services agency. And in 1989, as he was gearing up to run for Congress, he took part in a march against homelessness in Washington.

From the start, there was a sense of moral outrage, combined with an abiding belief in the government’s ability to chip away at the problem. “I care deeply and passionately about it,” Reed said of homelessness, when queried by the Providence Journal’s M. Charles Bakst, just after the Washington march. “Is it a shame and a disgrace? Yes. But…what I choose to see is not only the shame and disgrace but the potential in our system to mobilize people, to direct them, and when properly led, to accomplish anything, including significant rectification of this disgrace.”

After his re-election to the Senate in 2002, Reed began pressing for what may be his most significant contribution to the cause: an affordable housing trust fund. And at the tail end of the Bush era, with Congress scrambling to pass a foreclosure rescue package, Reed cut a deal with Senator Christopher J. Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat who chairs the banking committee, and Senator Richard C. Shelby, the top Republican on the panel, to pour fees from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac into a foreclosure-prevention fund that would, eventually, transition into the affordable housing trust fund.

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