Finding ‘home’

Finding ‘home’

Lincoln resident leads Coalition for the Homeless board’s mission of housing for all

One homeless person in Rhode Island is one too many.

That’s what Stephen Miller says. Miller, a Lincoln resident, (left photo), is the recently appointed board director at the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless. He says the organization’s mission is to house all of these individuals – and not just in shelters, which is a short-term solution.

“We believe in Rhode Island that homelessness is an issue that actually can be cured, or fixed or resolved,” Miller said. “There is a way to house every person with the issue in permanent housing, not a shelter situation.”

It’s a goal he says is possible.

Miller, a lawyer of 35 years who serves as associate municipal court judge for the town of Lincoln, has been on the coalition board since 2009. Given his knowledge of housing issues and zoning regulations, he proposed offering legal help through a clinic sponsored by the coalition, offering advice about family court and collection matters, probate issues and how to find housing.

Since 2009, he’s given legal advice and worked alongside law and social work students, who volunteer their time to help families through the program. Miller had also volunteered at a legal clinic at Amos House in Providence, where he met with homeless individuals and people seeking social services, as well as at the House of Hope Community Development Corporation, where he served as board president.

Eric Hirsch, of Scituate, (right photo), shares Miller’s goal of permanent housing for all.

Hirsch works as the government relations chairman of the coalition and oversees the homeless management information system. He’s been involved with the organization for about 20 years, and teaches sociology at Providence College.

“I just think that it’s morally wrong for us to allocate shelter and any kind of housing based on your ability to pay. I think everyone deserves to have a home,” Hirsch said.

Part of the coalition’s mission, Miller and Hirsch explained, is housing individuals in apartments and finding funding, either private or public, to pay their expenses through “rent vouchers.”

Hirsch said much of this funding comes from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and, in some cases, the individuals who move into these apartments are housed there for only about four months before re-establishing themselves. Once they’ve moved out, he explained, that rent funding is provided to someone else in need.

State funding for the coalition’s mission has generally been stable, Hirsch said, and Rhode Island has stepped up to create a dedicated funding stream for these programs.

Miller said this funding helps with rehabilitation to get these individuals back to work, or to attend services such as counseling sessions. Through the coalition’s efforts and community partners, including Riverwood Mental Health Services, Hirsch said, the organization is also able to provide help to struggling individuals to get them back on their feet.

Homelessness in Rhode Island, Hirsch said, is largely a problem caused by loss of income, including public benefits, welfare and social security income, but also high rental rates. They’ve only increased, he said.

It’s not an issue solely in urban areas, he and Miller said, though that’s where most shelters are located. Just about every community in the state, Hirsch said, has had residents who’ve wound up homeless.

Homelessness rates in northern Rhode Island communities in 2013, the latest available study done through the coalition using its data on the number of individuals that sought shelter that year, were as follows:

• Cumberland: 21 individuals, or .5 percent of town’s population

• Glocester: 8 residents, .2 percent

• Johnston: 8 individuals, .2 percent • Lincoln: 4 residents, .1 percent

• North Providence: 37 individuals, .8 percent

• North Smithfield: 8 residents, .2 percent

• Pawtucket: 324 residents, 7.3 percent

• Scituate: 8 individuals, .2 percent • Smithfield: 8 people, .2 percent

• Woonsocket: 195 residents, 4.4 percent

In 2015, Hirsch said, there were 4,263 homeless individuals in Rhode Island that sought assistance through shelters and were entered into the coalition’s information system. That’s an increase from 4,067 in 2014, and Hirsch anticipates that number will only grow once the report from 2016 comes out.

“People talk about the recovery of the housing market and how great that is. I’m sure that’s great for landlords and people who invest in the housing market, but it also has meant that rents have gone up,” he said.

In Rhode Island, the average rent increased by about 4 percent from 2014 to 2015. The homelessness rate mirrored that number.

“I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” Hirsch said.

Miller said a number of people he’s helped through the clinic are in a position where they plan to file for bankruptcy. In many cases though, he said, these people don’t have any money to pay off those deficits.

“They want to deal with their debts because that’s how they were raised,” Miller said.

Hirsch said that while the national homelessness rate has fallen, in areas where rent is increasing rapidly like Rhode Island, that number tends to increase.

The Providence College professor gave a nod to the Rhode Island residents that voted in favor of Question 7 on the ballot this November, which approved funding for affordable housing in the state, but said there’s still much work to be done.

“We have a housing market that is only meeting the needs of the upper half of the income distribution in terms of households,” he said.

The private sector, he said, isn’t building any of these apartments for Rhode Islanders, and Hirsch said more government subsidized units are sorely needed. Even when there’s an affordable unit for folks to live in, Hirsch said, being able to keep up with rent is another story.

In affordable housing situations, he said, residents have to pay 35 percent of their rent. For someone deemed physically disabled by their doctor, Hirsch said, they could likely collect about $700 to $800 a month. 

Hirsch said the most common misconception about homeless people is the notion that they don’t want to work. He runs advisory groups for individuals in the system, and said most people he interacts with long for a job. 

In many cases, they have a serious disability, hindering their capability to ever find work. Still, he said, they insist on finding an occupation.

While it’s true that some of the state’s homeless population have some form of a substance abuse problem, Hirsch said, the majority do not. Those that do, he said, have usually been homeless for a few years.

“Sometimes, that’s a result of being homeless rather than a cause of being homeless. People are drowning their sorrows, or trying to change their reality because it’s so depressing to be homeless,” he said.

What keeps him going, Hirsch said, is when the coalition is able to help place people in apartments and seeing the joy on their faces when they get the keys to their home. 

Hirsch said he hopes this year the coalition is able to place more Rhode Islanders in housing and provide a home to people that have been living in shelters for years at a time.