While the cause of undocumented immigrants has recently taken a primary place in the national public debate, advocates for the homeless hope that a statewide march — starting May 21 at Westerly Town Hall and ending at the State House on May 25 — will focus attention on the problem of people who lack even a place in which to reside.
The five-day trek, dubbed “the Journey Home,” comes as homelessness in Rhode Island is at an all-time high. More than 6000 Rhode Islanders, about one-third of who were children, used homeless shelters last year, according to the Rhode Island Emergency Shelter Information Project.
Advocates say the two leading causes of shelter use are inadequate income and soaring housing costs. “We can end homelessness if our government made a stronger commitment to producing low- and moderate-income housing and providing the support services necessary to allow formerly homeless people to stay in their homes,” Eric Hirsch, chair of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless’s Government Relations Committee, says in a statement.
Over the last year, the Rhode Island establishment has coalesced behind a new group, called HousingWorksRI (www.housingworksri.com), becauseof a recognition that the lack of affordable housing puts the state at a disadvantage in economic competitiveness. “The Housing Works platform gives us the tools to address this problem,” says Jim Ryczek, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless. “The platform is a wise economic investment. It will help people acquire homes, which is a more efficient use of resources than absorbing the high costs of letting people live on the streets.”
On a more fundamental level, the Journey Home (for more information, or to register to participate, visit www.thejourneyhomeri.org), which is based on similar actions during the Civil Rights movement, is meant to involve Rhode Islanders in reducing homelessness. The march will begin as part of Westerly’s Neighbor Day celebration and travel north, with stops and events in Charlestown, Peacedale, Wickford, East Greenwich, Warwick and Providence. “This is a very public demonstration of our priorities,” says Ben Gworek, a community organizer for the Statewide Housing Action Coalition.
Those slated to make the statewide journey include veteran peace activist and writer Richard Walton, who will turn 78 on May 24, the day the journey is scheduled to hit his hometown of Warwick.
“The governor is saying that cuts vital to the well-being of the poor and the near-poor will have to be made because there is not enough money,” Walton writes in an e-mail, “but we all know that hundreds of billions are being wasted on that unwinnable war in Iraq. Think what could be done in this country if even a fraction of that money were spent to meet human needs here.”