Letter - Public Private Alliance Essential to Solving Family Homelessness

My Turn by Benedict F. Lessing, Jr., President/CEO, Community Care Alliance

Published on October 29, 2023 in the Providence Journal 

One of the most difficult aspects of the homeless crisis in Rhode Island is the reality that there are hundreds of families with children throughout the state that are on the brink of losing their housing and many more that have already lost a roof over their heads. So where are these families going?

In many cases they are sleeping in cars, others in tents, still others in garages or what the Coordinated Entry System refers to as places not fit for human habitation. Our attention however continues to be fixated on encampments and removing unhoused mentally ill individuals from overpasses. At the same time, elected officials conduct tours supposedly to better understand the conditions under which the unhoused are living. To what end was it necessary to take Gov. Dan McKee on this excursion when the state Department of Housing has been dealing with various encampments in multiple communities? Has it not been evident that living conditions for the unhoused are often horrific?

The mayor in Woonsocket has been critical of Community Care Alliance for not solving the homeless problem and is calling for a new approach. That would be what — long-term residential programs? Institutions such as the Eleanor Slater Hospital? Would there be voluntary or involuntary arrangements? Would they be permanent? Would supported and affordable housing resources follow?

The Rhode Island Foundation’s independently commissioned report published a few months ago could not be clearer about the affordable housing crisis here and potential solutions. Facts are stubborn things. The emerging untold story we should focus on is unhoused children and families. Hundreds now reside in shelters or hotels and more are simply living outside, trying to figure out how to keep their family together.

Community Care Alliance has operated a family shelter for the past 30 years. Approximately 80% of the families served in this program have access to early childhood services, behavioral health, family support, employment and housing case management to transition to permanent housing. Models such as the Woonsocket Family Shelter are effective; the problem is that we and other providers are inundated with referrals daily with no additional resources available. Further compounding the issue, again, is the lack of affordable housing.

Homelessness in families with children significantly increases the level of complexity. Children experience being homeless as a traumatic event. It impacts their health, mental health and sense of belonging to a community or neighborhood, and negatively affects learning and academic performance. The parents in these circumstances are not neglecting their children, they simply cannot afford escalating rents.

As winter approaches, we need to be focused on creating sufficient shelter for families with children. However, we need to employ preventative approaches that keep families in their apartments and assist them in managing potentially catastrophic expenses that could push them into homelessness. Whether politically acceptable or not, we may need to revisit rent relief strategies, subsidies and incentives. All of this and more needs to happen until we replenish the state’s affordable housing stock.

Rhode Island, and Woonsocket, are a microcosm for what is happening nationally. Our efforts must remain focused on the human beings that are suffering. Finger pointing and coarse political rhetoric is not a solution; it is a distraction. Nonprofit organizations across the state have become immersed in this problem out of necessity. Unless we can create public-private collaboration to solve homelessness, the problem will only grow worse.

Benedict F. Lessing Jr. is president and CEO of Community Care Alliance.

Rhode Island, and Woonsocket, are a microcosm for what is happening nationally. Our efforts must remain focused on the human beings that are suffering.

Contact Information

PO Box 1700 | Woonsocket, RI | 02895 | Directions
401.235.7000 Main Agency | 401.235.7120 Emergency

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