But the larger point still stands: leaving the hardcore homeless on the street is not a cheap proposition. If we are going to pay for their care, advocates say, we may as well pay for care that is effective and humane. We may as well face the moral imperative of ending homelessness in the world’s wealthiest nation.

Meeting that imperative, advocates say, will take leaders who can see beyond the next state budget, who can corral the competing interests of the dozens of state and non-profit agencies that are engaging the problem, and who – above all else – are animated by a sense of outrage.

And those leaders are hard to come by. The death of State Representative Thomas Slater, a Providence Democrat felled by cancer in August, deprived the homeless of perhaps their most passionate ally on Smith Hill.

“It’s a big issue,” says Brenda Clement, executive director of the Housing Action Coalition of Rhode Island. “A legislative champion is very critical for moving things forward at the State House.”

But while advocates are courting new Speaker of the House Gordon Fox and relatively new Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, who played key roles in passage of the state’s most important affordable housing fund a decade ago, they are coming to the conclusion that a broader political mobilization may be necessary.

“We’ve been asking, ‘who’s the person who’s going to say this isn’t acceptable?,’” says Michelle Brophy, the Pawtucket-based director of the Corporation for Supportive Housing’s New England office. ”We’re starting to think that, maybe, it’s the general public.”

Come this fall, advocates are planning to launch a campaign for permanent supportive housing – the apartment-and-services combination offered up by programs like Housing First.

 FEAT051410_JohnJoyce_main
STABILITY Rhode Island Housing First client John Joyce at his subsidized apartment.

‘GOODBYE AND DON’T COME BACK’
Of course, if public policy is made – in part – in the legislature, it comes to life in the back offices of state government, in the sad corners of the prison system, and out on the street.

Among the frontline challenges: smoothing the often rocky transition from the state’s mental health system, foster care system, and prisons into stable housing. On any given night in April, 782 probationers listed a shelter as their home address.

Advocates say state officials are engaged with the problem, now, in ways they never were before. A corrections system that once said “goodbye and don’t come back” to the discharged, in the words of Roberta Richman, assistant director of rehabilitative services, now offers outplacement counseling.

And advocates credit Craig Stenning, director of the Department of Mental Health, Retardation & Hospitals, with the recent overhaul of regulations that incentivized treatment for relatively stable patients, who could be counted upon to show up for billable appointments, over care for the hard-to-reach homeless.

But they say coordination between the various entities that deal with the homelessness problem is not what it should be. It has been more than a year since the governor’s inter-agency council on homelessness formally met. Hirsch, the Providence College professor, says there are problems on the ground floor, too.

“I know homeless people who have four case managers - and none of them are getting [the clients] housing,” he said.

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