THE OPTIMIST “If we had the resources, we could end [chronic homelessness] next year,” Ryczek says. Photo: RICHARD McCAFFREY


Jim Ryczek has always been attuned to the plight of the outsider. But it took some time to find his voice.

Reared in a blue-collar, Catholic town in western Massachusetts, he spent years hiding the fact that he was gay. And when he finally came out at 25, it did not go well. His mother was stunned. His father was angry.

But his parents came around in time. Father and son grew close before the elder Ryczek succumbed to cancer. Mom proudly proclaims her son’s sexual orientation these days.

And for Ryczek, coming out gave him a new kind of strength. “Before that happened,” he says, “I was pretty timid and closed-mouthed.”

That is not to say that Ryczek, who serves as executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, is a brash figure these days. Polite and warm, he says he still doesn’t particularly care for conflict in his personal affairs.

But when it comes to his working life, Ryczek, 44, has little trouble playing the forceful advocate. “When I think it’s conflict in support of an issue I believe in, like social and economic justice . . . I really don’t see it much as conflict,” he says, “I just view it as speaking truth.”

Speaking truth is, more or less, Ryczek’s job. The coalition is not a direct services agency, but rather an advocate. The voice of the homeless on Smith Hill. And there is plenty to talk about these days.

Rhode Island’s withering recession has had a devastating effect. Last month, the homeless population surged to a record high of 1283, up 15 percent from the year before.

The state’s fiscal woes have only made things worse. Governor Carcieri has proposed eliminating funding for the 10-year-old Neighborhood Opportunities Program (NOP), which has helped provide some 1200 housing units for low-income and disabled people. And uncertainty over the final bill for the historic flooding of recent weeks has advocates worried about whether the General Assembly will restore the funding as hoped.

Ryczek will draw on a colorful history of advocacy in making the case for NOP. After graduating from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 1987, he moved to Maine to teach, starting in the town of Oakland and landing in Portland. There, he volunteered to work for a local AIDS hotline.

But it was only after he left the classroom to prepare for graduate school that he came out to his community, testifying before the City Council on an ordinance that added sexual orientation to the city’s anti-discrimination policy.

“That was my first foray into public advocacy,” he says. “The next day my face was on the front page of the Portland Herald and I freaked out a little bit because it wasn’t that safe to be identified that publicly. But I felt like I had a responsibility because my colleagues who were gay and lesbian in the school system couldn’t come.”

It was another turning point for Ryczek. And after attaining his masters in social work from Boston University in 1995, he continued his advocacy work — dressing in drag, at one point, to conduct AIDS outreach in Provincetown and later working with HIV-positive ex-offenders in Rhode Island on the transition to life outside prison.

It was here that he ran headlong into the problem of homelessness. Of the 75 ex-offenders he worked with over five years, Ryczek says, only one landed in housing while in his care. It was a discouraging state of affairs. A spur to his current line of work.

But these days, even in the face of short-term budget crises, Ryczek is optimistic. About 4500 to 5000 people become homeless each year in Rhode Island, he says. And perhaps 10 to 15 percent number among the high-cost, hardcore homeless. These are manageable numbers, he insists.

The state, he says, could end homelessness. Or at least chronic homelessness: “If we had the resources, we could end it next year.”

A couple of decades ago, that sort of talk might have seemed fanciful. But an ascendant approach known as “housing first” has had remarkable success in Rhode Island and beyond.

Traditionally, the homeless have moved through a multi-level system that begins with shelters and moves up to transitional housing and finally to independent housing. The problem with that model is that many of the toughest cases are derailed by addiction and other issues before they reach the end goal.

The housing first approach, pioneered in New York City in the early 1990s, skips right to independent housing — even for those with significant drinking or drug problems. The idea: the homeless need a stable home before they can begin addressing the roots of their woes.

The housing first model, which incorporates intense outreach on everything from substance abuse, to health care, to job readiness, is but one approach within a broader rubric known as permanent supportive housing. But all the models within that rubric provide long-term, stable homes with intense supports.

That, Ryczek says, is the answer to Rhode Island’s problem with homelessness. And in the fall, if all goes according to plan, the coalition will launch a campaign in support of the idea.
It is an ambitious endeavor. And Ryczek emphasizes that it will be a team effort. He heaps praise on the eight other members of his staff. And the coalition takes special care to include the input of the homeless themselves.

The face of that effort, though, will be a gay man from a small town in western Massachusetts — once timid, but no more.

--David Scharfenberg

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