Rhode Island's itty-bittyness is, of course, a handicap from time to time. But it is also a source of opportunity.

In a place this small, we should be able to get stuff done.

One of the more intriguing possibilities: the state could, with the proper resources, effectively end homelessness.

And that's what makes the General Assembly's proposed defunding of the state's prime anti-homelessness initiative, the Neighborhood Opportunities Program (NOP), so frustrating for advocates.

The program, truth be told, has been dying for years.

It kicked off a decade ago with $5 million in annual funding and the allocation peaked at $7.5 million in the middle of the last decade. But by last year, with the state in unending fiscal distress, the figure had declined to $1.5 million.

Still, the money has helped fund the construction and operation of some 1200 affordable housing units, geared toward the poorest Rhode Islanders, in towns from North Smithfield to Providence.

Now, the legislature would slash funding for the program just as Rhode Island's other key homelessness prevention initiative — a $50 million, four-year affordable housing bond — is coming to an end.

Jim Ryczek, executive director for the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, says the cut, if approved in the coming weeks, would amount to nothing less than an abdication by state legislators.

"You're telling me," he says, "that you don't have any responsibility to address this public policy problem."

And this, Ryczek says, after churches and the non-profit sector scrambled to expand the shelter network — a band-aid, not a long-term solution — for a population that reached an all-time high of 4400 last year.

Governor Lincoln Chafee, who first proposed the NOP cut, and the legislative leaders who embraced the idea are quick to point out that they would direct Rhode Island Housing, a quasi-public agency, to pick up NOP next year — paying for the program out of its existing budget.

But Richard Godfrey, executive director of Rhode Island Housing, says spending $1.5 million on NOP would require corresponding cuts to other efforts with similar ends.

Among them: shelter support, emergency rent assistance for those on the brink of homelessness, construction of new affordable housing, and "permanent supportive housing," which combines a roof over the head with social services.

It is this last approach, which fires NOP and other promising efforts around the state, that represents the best chance to end homelessness in Rhode Island.

At the heart of the problem, after all, is a chronically homeless population of perhaps 500 people, many facing the twin ravages of mental illness and addiction.

For years, advocates here and around the country had little luck getting this hardcore group off the streets. But that began to change in the early '90s with a pilot program in New York City known as "housing first."

The idea: instead of requiring the chronically homeless to get clean and sober before putting them in apartments, give them places to live first. The central insight, obvious in retrospect: the truly compromised have little chance of getting their lives in order without the stability of a home.

The approach has found success in cities from New York to San Francisco. And it has worked quite well, where attempted, in Rhode Island. The challenge is scaring up the money for broader application.

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