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Activist group: State’s chronic homeless population is growing

October 24, 2013

From her office at the intersection of Dexter and Barton streets in Pawtucket, Jessica Mowry of the Mental Health Association of Rhode Island says she sees “a vast increase in the number of folks who are chronically homeless.

“We see 30-60 people a day for our walk-in service and we have a waiting list of 60 people who are eligible to receive intensive case-management services,” Mowry said, noting that, to be eligible, a person must have a psychiatric and/or substance abuse problem but also needs to meet a chronic homelessness criteria. That means the person must have been homeless for more than a year or more than four times in three years.

“We meet a lot of people who have been homeless for a very long time and that number is growing quickly,” she said.

Mowry made her comments on the day the RI Coalition for the Homeless issued a report card giving Rhode Island officials a C+ for implementing “Open Doors RI,” the state’s strategic plan for addressing homelessness.

The coalition allowed that the state is making improvements toward reaching four of five of the plan’s goals, but said efforts to increase economic security for homeless people has “stalled” (although it issued a B+ score). To jumpstart that goal, the coalition recommends that the Department of Labor and Training put more emphasis on homelessness, that the state work to close the gaps between incomes and housing costs and offering more job opportunities.

In all of the other categories, the coalition gives the state credit for “improving.”

The report gives the state a C- on working toward the goal of increasing the supply of and access to permanent housing that is affordable to very low income households; it scored a B+ (the highest grade of the five) for retooling the homeless crisis response system; a C+ for improving health and housing stability, and a C for increasing leadership, collaboration and civic engagement.

“One of the greatest barriers we face is finding affordable housing for folks; it’s no secret there is a lack of (housing) stock in this state,” Mowry said. “An additional commitment is required to meet the needs of all the residents.”

James Ryczek, executive director, said the coalition took upon itself the job of watchdogging “to make sure that the plan, which we think is reasonable and doable, is actually implemented. Many state plans get formulated, then put on a shelf to gather dust. We were committed to not letting that happen.

“We wanted to make sure the progress that’s been made over the last couple of years was highlighted, but also, concurrently, to give constructive criticism about the things that still need to be done.

The report card concludes that there have been positive changes in the way the state responds to homelessness, particularly in the areas that involve process, coordination and strategies to better serve Rhode Islanders experiencing homelessness, but adds, “We must continue to shift the focus from short-term crisis responses, like shelters, to the long-term solution of affordable housing.”

Not surprisingly, one of the problems is money.

“Systems reform alone cannot end homelessness,” the coalition says. “Fully funding the plan will help the state improve its economy, realize long-term cost savings, and improve the lives of thousands of Rhode Islanders who are currently experiencing homelessness.”

The report calls for both the governor and the General Assembly to include funding for $3.4 million in the 2015 state budget for rental assistance and to increase funding by $439,000 in the budget for homeless prevention and assistance.”

The goals of the “Open Doors” plan, initiated in 2012, include:

• Ending chronic homelessness by 2018

• Preventing and ending homelessness among veterans by 2018

• Preventing and ending homelessness for families, children, and youth by 2023

• Dramatically reduce, at least cut in half, all forms of homelessness in the state by 2023

Follow Jim Baron on Twitter @Jim_Baron

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