But advocates warn that the count has “blind spots” and that thousands of Rhode Islanders experience homelessness each year.
The Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless published data gathered from the 2019 Point in Time Count (PIT) that illustrates the scope of homelessness in Rhode Island. While the report shows an overall reduction in the number of Rhode Islanders experiencing homelessness, advocates warn there is more to this than meets the eye.
“Progress is certainly being made, but ultimately the Point in Time Count alone is an imperfect way to capture the full scope of homelessness in Rhode Island,” explained Caitlin Frumerie, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless.
The Point in Time Count, mandated by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), is a count of all individuals, sheltered and unsheltered, experiencing homelessness on a given night in January. Rhode Island conducted the annual PIT count on January 23, 2019. In the prior year (January 2018), the PIT demonstrated that, on any given night, 1,101 Rhode Islanders experienced homelessness. That number is down to 1,055 (a decrease of 46 persons), but the 2019 PIT count also shows a rise in the number of unsheltered Rhode Islanders experiencing homelessness: 71 people, up from 51 people in 2018.
“We must always be mindful of the Point in Time Count’s blind spots,” said Frumerie. “To begin with, the count documents one night only. According to our Annual Homeless & Housing Count, in 2018 3,342 Rhode Islanders experienced homelessness, including 721 families. Furthermore, there is no clear way to count the number of Rhode Islanders experiencing homelessness who are ‘doubled-up’: couch-surfing, staying with relatives or friends, etc.
“In fact, those who find shelter by ‘doubling-up’ are not even considered ‘homeless’ under HUD’s definition. In addition PIT alone does not provide clarity on causal reasons for a rise or decline in homelessness. For example, the data shows a drop in the number of families in shelter. Last year, the largest family shelter in our state closed in order to provide more resources for permanent affordable housing. Some families do indeed find safe, affordable housing. Yet the wait lists for shelter continue to grow as do the wait lists for housing income supports. Going from a shelter to a wait list for housing is not a victory in the fight against homelessness.”
Frumerie emphasized the need to take into account not only the numbers from data reports, but especially the voices of Rhode Islanders experiencing homelessness, when understanding the full scope of homelessness in the state.
“The numbers certainly don’t lie on one critical thing: literally thousands of Rhode Islanders, including our elders, children, and veterans, continue to experience homelessness,” said Frumerie. “We hear from them the struggles they face: the near impossibility of finding housing thanks to rising costs, discrimination based on source of income that shuts out even affordable housing, difficulty connecting with resources, stigma for being homeless. That status quo is not acceptable. There is no acceptable number of Rhode Islanders experiencing homelessness. Our Coalition members and community partners strive every day to support and assist our neighbors experiencing homelessness.
“This year we’ve advocated in support of banning discrimination in housing based on source of income and sealing eviction court records when the verdict is found in favor of the tenant. Both bills will help remove significant barriers to obtaining safe, secure, affordable housing. The Coalition also supports the Pay for Success social impact bond included in the Commerce Corps budget that would provide 125 vouchers for permanent supportive housing for our neighbors most in need.
“We will continue to advocate for what we know works to end homelessness in Rhode Island: preserving and expanding affordable housing, a barrierless well-coordinated system of sustainable resources to help those in need, meaningful government investment in said system, and a statewide culture that upholds the dignity and respect of every single Rhode Islander, regardless of housing status.”
The full data set from the 2019 Point in Time Count can be found on www.rihomeless.org.