Letter - An Urgent Call for RI Leaders to Deal with Homelessness
My Turn by Benedict F. Lessing, Jr., President/CEO, Community Care Alliance
Published on January 14, 2023 in the Providence Journal
As we approach the annual Martin Luther King holiday, it is worth asking ourselves what we are doing to make real Dr. King’s vision of a Beloved Community here in Rhode Island. We are in the midst of a homelessness and housing crisis that has hundreds of people living outside, many of whom are suffering with serious mental illness, addiction and other healthcare concerns. This also includes families with children that are desperately struggling to remain together and avoid their kids being placed into foster care and becoming tangled up with the child welfare system.
Over the past year, 13 people in Woonsocket have died as a result of homelessness and other complicating factors such as Fentanyl overdose and ongoing healthcare concerns. This is likely happening in core cities across RI; however, the State does not track this data. What is the message this lack of attention is sending?
While homelessness is in the news on sometimes a daily and weekly basis, we have yet to declare this an Emergency and then respond accordingly. Why? Are people forced to live outside not worthy of our concern? Speaker Shekarchi has publicly stated “There can be no doubt we have a housing crisis and a homelessness crisis. As long as there are people without safe and permanent housing, our work is not done.” If ARPA funds were allocated as a means of beginning to address this problem, are they not time-limited and subject to return to the Federal Government if not used?
To date, the State has not effectively engaged municipalities and non-profit organizations to collaboratively address the problem. The reality here is that we have been slow to create lifesaving shelter resources with additional supportive and wraparound services nor have we begun to develop the necessary supported and affordable housing; neither of these approaches are optional. We have the skills and capacity between State employees and non-profit organizations to accomplish this; we lack the political leadership on multiple levels.
Another reality with which we have not acknowledged is the cost. First and foremost, on the lives of people living outside. Among Behavioral Health, Medical and Social Service providers, it is a forgone conclusion that homelessness is both traumatic and reduces life expectancy. It is developmentally disruptive to children and impedes their social, emotional and academic capacity. The reality is that it also increases costs to hospitals, medical first responders, social service systems and local public safety. There are increasing numbers of studies that underscore that health improves and the total cost of care is lowered when we address homelessness in a comprehensive and systematic manner. Why this fact has not registered with policy makers is confounding and frustrating.
As the General Assembly reconvenes, it is imperative that homelessness be viewed within a public health, behavioral health, family wellbeing and economic context. Although complex, this is a problem that can and must be solved. In order to do so, we must stop pointing fingers at advocates, blaming the victims of homelessness and railing against encampments. If Dr. King’s legacy and vision means anything to us beyond an annual celebration, we must first treat homeless individuals and families with the dignity and respect they deserve and then roll up our sleeves to solve this problem. That said, we need elected officials at all levels to do their part if we are to create the Beloved Community Dr. King thought possible.