On any given day, more than a thousand Rhode Islanders are living on the streets – in cars, in bus or train stations, in shelters, or sleeping on the floor at the home or apartment of a relative or friend. On any given day, thousands of Rhode Islanders are clinging to civility, living in housing they can’t afford, foregoing food, medicines or healthcare insurance.

This is the picture of homelessness and the lack of affordable housing in Rhode Island, a picture painted by executives from Kids Count to homeless coalitions to agencies dedicated to providing aid to underserved Rhode Islanders.

These are issues that are also largely ignored by local and state governments because, as many acknowledge, the victims of homelessness and lack of affordable housing, are not your most prolific voters.

WhatsUpNewp has been rolling out a series of stories focusing on both the homeless and on affordable housing, hopeful to raise awareness and instill a sense of urgency throughout government. This is the second of our stories.

In our first story we focused on the affordable housing law that was passed in Rhode Island nearly three decades ago, and the fact that only five of Rhode Island’s 39 cities and towns had achieved the 10 percent threshold mandated by the law.

A House of Representatives subcommittee, formed in 2016 to explore why so few communities had met the requirement, reported back this year, with perhaps its chief recommendation to extend the commission another year.

Key among its recommendations to date: “rethink what it means to meet the requirements of minimum housing”; and measure the impact that affordable housing has on communities, and the correlation between affordable housing and public health. The commission said it met eight times in two years.

A 2016 study by Housing Works for Rhode Island Housing said the state needs to add 30,000 housing units over the next nine years to meet projected needs.

“This is a very complex and nuanced issue,” said Commission Vice Chairman, Rep. Michael Morin, D-Woonsocket, in a commission press release issued a few months ago.

But there are those who fail to see the complexities, instead of seeing it as a law that’s unenforceable.

“There’s no teeth to the regulation, no penalty, no incentive,” said Stephanie Geller, senior policy analyst at RI Kids Count. “The problem is not getting better, it’s getting worse.”

In towns throughout Rhode Island “people think affordable housing will lower property values,” she said.

But Geller and others like the Johnny Cake Center’s Lee Eastborne and the Warm Center’s Russ Partridge are quick to note the cost of not having enough affordable housing is more severe illnesses, food related issues, poor school attendance and outcomes that come from families having to choose whether to pay the rent or mortgage, put enough food on the table, buy health care insurance, or buy prescription medications that could forestall more severe illnesses.

Housing Works defines affordable housing as living in housing in which you pay no more than 30 percent of your gross income on rent or mortgage payments, which meets the percentage federal guideline for “affordability.” Kids Count said some families pay as much as 60 percent of gross income for housing.

According to the Kids Count latest Fact Book, very low-income families are paying well above the 30 percent threshold in every city and town in the state. Even in Central Falls, perhaps the lowest income city in the state, low income and poverty level families are paying nearly 40 percent of their gross incomes for housing. And, in Newport, one of the five towns meeting the affordable living threshold, very low-income families pay half their monthly income for housing.

According to the Rhode Island Housing and Community Development’s 2014 report on low- and moderate-income housing by community, the latest available on line, five communities have met the minimum threshold: Central Falls, 11.83 percent; New Shoreham (Block Island), 10.63 percent; Newport, 17.13 percent; Providence, 14.79 percent; and Woonsocket, 15.89 percent. Newport, Woonsocket, Central Falls, and Providence are among 10 communities identified as communities with substantial public housing.

Statewide 8.3 percent of 445,902 housing units statewide meet the minimum. The number does not include seasonal housing.

Not surprisingly, towns with large lot size requirements have the least percentage of affordable housing. Many, like Little Compton with 0.56 percent affordable housing and two-acre minimum lots, and West Greenwich with 1.41 percent affordable housing and one acre lots, require minimum house lots of an acre or more.

Meanwhile, there are those who simply cannot afford any housing and are counted among the state’s homeless.

According to Kids Count there are 1,245 children in public schools that have been identified as homeless by the schools. Geller said the standard used by schools is the McKinney-Veto Definition of Homeless as provided by the National Center for Homeless Education.

“The term homeless children and youth,” McVinney-Vento said, “means individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence,” including children and youth living temporarily in homes with other persons due to a loss of housing; children and youth who are living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds “due to the lack of alternative adequate accommodations”; living in emergency or transitional shelters; or who are abandoned in hospitals.

It goes on to mention cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings.

Geller said the numbers are under reported as parents fear that by reporting children as homeless, they will be taken from them. She also noted that the 1,245 number only includes school age children.

Kids Count also uses another measure for homes, a point in time count, which tries to identify the number of homeless individuals on any single day. For January 25, 2017 for instance, on that single day, there were 1,180 individuals reported as homeless, a report compiled by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The demographic make-up includes children, families, the mentally ill, veterans, and victims of domestic violence, among others. On that day, 184 were characterized as mentally ill, 121 victims of domestic violence, 99 chronic substance abuse, and 36 unaccompanied youth, and 31 veterans.

Crossroads Rhode Island, on its web page, described the report as a “snapshot of homelessness,” and that in Rhode Island the number increased by 1.7 percent, with an “alarming” increase in “chronic homelessness,” up by 66.6 percent, and families increasing by 25 percent.

“PIT (Point in Time) counts are problematic,” Crossroads said, “in that they count people only for one night during the coldest time of year when shelters are more likely to be full. But, that is also when more people without homes double up with friends or family and are not counted.  

“Most counts do not include homeless people who are incarcerated, although their numbers are significant. Enumerators cannot be expected to cover every location, especially on a cold and dark winter night, and many people living in hidden places will be missed.”

Crossroads, like so many others, said there is a lack of “stock of housing that is affordable for people at the lowest income levels. There is no effective state-wide coordinated effort focused on housing development and programs for people who are experiencing homelessness or are at-risk for homelessness.”

Crossroads is calling for a greater investment of state and federal funds for housing, “We Have to Stay Focused on Housing,” Crossroads said, “Housing is the only solution to homelessness.”

WhatsUpNewp was recently awarded an Impact-Designed Investigative Grant (I-DIG) for investigative reporting from Local Independent Online News Publishers (LION) and the Excellence and Ethics in Journalism Foundation. What’sUpNewp, who was one of 18 grant winners across the country, is using our I-DIG grant to fund this project on Affordable Housing.

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