Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness Deputy Director Margaux Morisseau discusses the results of the 2023 Point In Time count for Rhode Island. Seated left to right are Ruth “Diamond” Madsen, a housing advocate with the coalition; Laura Jaworski, executive director of House of Hope; and Rhode Island Secretary of Housing Stefan Pryor. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)
PROVIDENCE — The number of unsheltered Rhode Islanders nearly quadrupled over the last four years, according to the results of a recent census released Tuesday at the State House.
The Point In Time count, run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development with many local partners to measure homelessness, is conducted annually on a single night in January. Volunteers from the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness conducted this year’s count on Jan. 25.
Advocates who gathered in the State House Library to discuss the findings said the increase can be traced to Rhode Island’s housing crisis. The 2019 census counted 71 people. This year, volunteers counted 334.
“It probably is an undercount,” said Caitlin Frumerie, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness,. “It’s a crisis that is worsening.”
“We have so many resources and so much potential,” Frumerie added. “Yet we continue to have Rhode Islanders living outdoors.
According to the 2023 count, Rhode Island saw a 15% increase in overall homelessness — including those in shelters — from 1,577 in 2022 to 1,810 this year. Those numbers included 1,215 individuals and 595 people in families.
The total homeless population represents a 65% increase from the 1,104 recorded in 2020.
The count also recorded 629 chronically homeless Rhode Islanders — defined as those homeless for more than a year and having a substance or mental health disorder — an almost 27% increase from the 497 recorded in 2022.
Yet for those working among the unhoused, the numbers came as no surprise, least of all to Ruth “Diamond” Madsen, a housing advocate with the coalition who herself was unhoused until about six years ago.
“I’m numb,” Madsen said. “Between housing and this drug situation, I’m going numb.”
Even so, Laura Jaworski, executive director of House of Hope, a nonprofit community development corporation, said one word summed up her thoughts on the data.
“Anger is the only emotion I have in reaction to today’s data,” Jaworski said. “Things feel like they are not improving.
“We have the facts and data, and that is validating.”
Advocates pointed to the costs of housing in the state as the primary culprit in the increase.
“Ultimately, the way that we end homelessness is more housing,” Frumerie said. “There just aren’t the units there to be able to move people into that housing.”
According to a recent study commissioned by the Rhode Island Foundation performed by Boston Consulting Group, housing construction in the state was last in the nation in 2021, at only one unit per 1,000 residents. About 80% of the state’s housing units were built before 1980.
That low-production rate led to skyrocketing housing prices due to a lack of supply to meet demand. The supply crisis led the Providence Metro Area (including Fall River and New Bedford) to rank fifth highest year-over-year rate of rental cost increases in the country at 23.8%, according to the HousingWorks RI 2022 Housing Factbook.
Though the highest rates of homelessness are concentrated in the urban centers of Providence, Pawtucket, and Central Falls, the advocates said the issue is present — if hidden — in rural communities as well.
“We expect that based on the homelessness we can see (in the open),” Frumerie said. “Go into the rural parts of our state and you’ll find people in forests,and state parks. Not being visible gives you a layer of protection that is really important.”
Rhode Island Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor cited an amendment to Gov. Dan McKee’s proposed fiscal year 2024 budget as a beacon of hope. The amendment includes up to $30 million annually in low income housing tax credits and puts $29 million in State Recovery Fund money towards housing development and investing in increasing shelter and help in finding permanent housing for the unhoused.
“These are important steps forward,” Pryor said. “Is it enough? It is not enough. It is a strong start.
“This problem is enormously challenging,” he said. “But the scale of it is addressable if we all come together.”
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