Homelessness grew in Rhode Island by nearly 50 percent over the last four years, and by 20 percent in just the last year, according to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Those numbers, considered by many at homeless shelters in Rhode Island, are low, with the real number, homeless advocates say, more like 4,000. KIDS COUNT, which annually surveys conditions for children, has consistently reported that from kindergarten through high school, across Rhode Island, some 1,500 children are considered homeless.

“I’m beginning to panic a little bit about where we are going,” says Russ Partridge, executive director of Westerly’s WARM Center and Wakefield’s Welcome House. “Things are not moving in the right direction.”

A news release sent out recently by the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness, said HUD’s Point in Time count of homeless on Jan. 26, found 1,577 people experiencing homelessness, “a notable increase in people experiencing homelessness in the last year and a drastic increase in unsheltered persons experiencing homelessness.”

The HUD count found 1,267 people homeless in Rhode Island in 2021; 1,104 in 2020; and 1,055 in 2019.

Partridge says those numbers don’t account for individuals and families that avoid being found, fearful, in some instances, that if they are their children might be taken from them.

Most local officials count as homeless those living on the streets, those in shelters, and those who are couch surfacing, staying with families or friends. Basically, people without a permanent address.

While Partridge says he has some hope for the future, with additional funding coming from the state and other sources, it doesn’t take care of current needs.

“We are in a crisis now that needs to be dealt with,” he says.

At the end of this month, funding ends for a program that would put homeless individuals and families in hotels/motels, Patridge says. The motels and hotels are set to once again house tourists rather than the homeless.

Each day, programs, like the WARM CENTER receive calls from those who see themselves “on the verge of homelessness.”

In nearby Stonington, at the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center, Susan Sedensky, the executive director, says they have seen an alarming increase in the number of individuals frequenting the organization’s food pantry, up 20 percent since last May, and see housing as a significant issue.

“There are funds out there to get them into an apartment,” she says. “If we can get them the funds for the first month’s rent, how are they going to sustain that?”

Plus, she says, it’s very difficult to find housing.

At the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in Newport, officials report that in 2021 alone the center served more than 650,000 meals, delivered groceries to 1,172 homebound seniors, and served 11,476 hot breakfasts.