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Homeless Families in Rhode Island

When Rhode Island families are faced with the daunting challenges of homelessness and seeking safe shelter, most turn first to Crossroads Rhode Island for the help they need. Just this past January, the number of families coming to us for shelter has exploded. At our downtown location, where families who are newly homeless come for intake and referrals to shelter, the number increased by 111% compared to last January. Our Family Center provided shelter for 50% more families, and we significantly increased the number of families accepted into our Rapid Rehousing program.

Stephanie Alexander, the Family Case Advocate, says that she has never seen anything like this. “Most of the families are losing their apartments after the state cuts off their benefits,” Stephanie says. “The ones that become homeless are the least able to find employment that pays enough for a decent apartment.”

That is a problem in Rhode Island, where low-income families are extremely cost-burdened by the state’s high rents. Housing Works Rhode Island’s February 2012 Issue Brief states that the cost of a 3-bedroom apartment has gone up 75% during the last decade, and most low-wage jobs pay far below the almost $24/hour wage required to afford a 2-bedroom apartment. “Mostly, we see single moms with small children who have lost their cash assistance and have little chance of finding a family-wage job.”

Other families became homeless after banks foreclosed on the apartment houses where they were living. “Their stories are really sad,” Stephanie says. Some of them received an eviction notice only a day before they had to get out.” One family went to court to try to get some extra time before having to move, and while they were there, a truck went to their apartment and loaded all their belongings. When they got home, they had nothing and came to Crossroads in desperation. The family went into a shelter and is working with Crossroads’ to find a new apartment; meanwhile, the moving company is demanding $650 to release their household belongings.

“The number of families is overwhelming, and we do not have extra resources to help them,” Stephanie says. “When we can’t find beds in other shelters around the state, families end up sleeping in our family room or the conference room downtown. The Family Center has had to put cots in the living room and the computer study room for families that had no other place to go for the night.”

There are other problems placing families. It is can be challenging to find shelter for families with older children, because some family shelters will not take male children over 12 years of age (but new HUD regulations soon will require that all children under 18 be allowed to stay with their families in shelters). Others are reluctant to take families that speak a language other than English because staff is not bi-lingual, and some don’t want to take any single male head of household families. Some shelters require that parents produce birth certificates for infants before they will take the family.

“There are some happy endings,” Stephanie says. She talks about a single mom with 2 children. Jenna was working at a decent job processing medical records when she was laid off. Soon, she couldn’t pay her rent with reduced income from her unemployment benefits, and Jenna and the children went to stay with relatives. That was only temporary because extra people could not stay in the apartment, and the family was soon literally homeless. To make things worse, Jenna had a medical problem that prevented her from going back to work right away. “When they came to Crossroads, we couldn’t find a shelter for them,” Stephanie remembers. “We put them up in the Family Room for two nights.” After a few days, Stephanie found a shelter in Pawtucket to take the family and then connected Jenna to the Winter Pilot Program, where she was approved for the short-term rental assistance. In the meantime, Stephanie determined that Jenna and her children were excellent candidates for Crossroads Transitional Housing Program, which provides safe and respectful housing with wrap-around services. Jenna will forego the Winter Pilot Program in favor of Crossroads’ supportive transitional housing. Even though she has job skills and work experience now, Jenna is planning on enrolling in Crossroads’ Nurse Assistant training program soon and hopes to pursue a better paying job in the health care field.

In 2012, many more families will see their benefits end from Rhode Island’s cash assistance programs. Without a thriving job market, most of the parents will not be able to find family-wage jobs to support the costs of housing and food. The costs of housing are going up and the stock of affordable housing is not growing quickly enough. Homeless families desperately need service-enriched programs, rapid re-housing, job training and other supports that help them achieve a stable source of income.

Crossroads family case advocates work very hard to move families to housing as quickly as possible. Stable homes are especially important for the children, who suffer from the trauma of being homeless and losing everything they cherished. They often have trouble in school, go hungry and worry about where they will sleep at night. While the families are in our Family Shelter, we do everything possible to make their stay comfortable and productive to help them move on quickly. In addition to the shelter, Families have access to programs where they learn how to budget, plan for emergencies, and improve their life skills so they can stabilize their lives and never be homeless again.

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