2015-03-12 / Around Town

Newport’s Homeless Weather the Cold

By Tom Walsh

Martina Javid, Tasha Evans, homeless advocates, spoke with two men about homelessness and housing options during the November homeless survey. (Photo by Jack Kelly) Martina Javid, Tasha Evans, homeless advocates, spoke with two men about homelessness and housing options during the November homeless survey. (Photo by Jack Kelly) Newport is different things to different people, and sometimes local conversations can begin to sound almost Dickensian, a real tale of two cities.

Especially when it comes to homeless people.

“Newport is looked at as a very wealthy community,” said Deb Johnson, director of the McKinney Shelter for homeless individuals located downtown near Washington Square. “That’s how outsiders view us.”

Johnson, whose McKinney Shelter was to hold its annual fundraiser March 12, knows better than anyone that there is another reality to Newport besides sailboats and mansions. “It certainly is the case that there are a lot of low-income people who live in Newport,” she said.

“We are at capacity every night,” said Stephen Ostiguy, executive director of the Church Community Housing Corp., another downtown shelter for homeless people. “Every night’s a challenge. It’s tough out there.”

This winter’s biting cold and snow have heightened concern for homeless people of Newport and elsewhere in the Northeast. Johnson said that with the extreme winter weather this year, without shelter “people would be dying, trying to sleep in unlocked cars or backyards.”

According to the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, there were slightly more than 4,000 people without homes in Rhode Island in 2014—down from nearly 4,500 a year earlier. Of those, an estimated 160 lived in Newport last year.

However, estimating the homeless population anywhere is difficult. Some move in with friends or relatives during winter, making it next to impossible to arrive at an unassailable figure. Others take temporary refuge in shelters such as McKinney or Church Community Housing.

Eric L. Hirsch, a Providence College sociology professor specializing in issues concerning homeless people, decried stereotyping the homeless as mentally ill or as substance abusers. “The problem is actually market failure,” Hirsch said. “It’s about a lack of housing for people without high incomes.”

Using 30 percent of income as the amount necessary today to rent a two-bedroom house, Hirsch contends that people need to make at least $43,000 a year to afford typical rental accommodations in today’s real estate marketplace.

“That’s close to the median household income today, which means that nearly half of the population cannot afford to buy a house or to rent a two-bedroom apartment,” Hirsch said. “The way we distribute housing to people in this country just does not work.”

And, he said, “The big surprise is that there are not more people who are homeless or eating their meals at soup kitchens because after they’ve paid the rent they can’t afford to buy food.”

Hirsch, who became interested in the plight of the homeless while teaching at Columbia University during the 1980s, estimated that if there were a way to accurately count the number of Rhode Island homeless living “doubled up” with friends or relatives, the state’s estimated homeless population could soar from 4,000 to 25,000.

The PC professor also described how homelessness exacts a high price in the already burdened state budget. He said his research uncovered that the state spent more than $9 million over two and a half years in Medicaid coverage for just 67 chronically homeless individuals.

Meanwhile, at McKinney, Newport’s only shelter for homeless single adults, space remains tight. “We’re bursting at the seams,” Johnson said. “It’s very hard. A lot of people are homeless at this time.”

Just who are the homeless?

“There’s no such thing as a typical homeless person,” Johnson said. We see people of all ages and from all walks of life, employed and unemployed, with college degrees and without. And they are all just so grateful that we have the McKinney Shelter in our city.”

When homeless people arrive at the shelter, they receive “more than just a roof over their head,” Johnson explained. “They get a chance to get their lives together. There’s a lot more than shelter here. They get a lot of case management that helps get them out of homelessness. It never ends. It’s constant, year round. We’re always full and there’s always a need. We spend a lot of time and energy investing in people's lives.”

At Lucy’s Hearth, the Middletown program that provides help and shelter to 10 families of women and children, clients typically reside there for three to six months, said Jennifer Barrera, the superintendent. “Every single space is filled and every common space is used,” she said. Her facility is one of only five for women and children in Rhode Island. As a family leaves, they refer to a statewide waiting list and offer space to another needy Aquidneck Island family.

This winter, Barrera said, has been a struggle. “It’s been a very difficult couple of weeks,” she said. Snow piles and icy walks make safety an issue, she said. And, illness— colds, flu and stomach ailments among residents—has been common. Seamen's Church Institute in Market Square also opened its doors on several occasions to those without shelter.

Because of fire regulations, on a given night there is not always a place on Aquidneck Island for the homeless, regardless of how low the mercury falls. “But we never tell people ‘It’s eight degrees below zero out there and we can’t help you,’ ” Johnson said. At the least, a homeless person receives a bus ticket to the larger Crossroads shelter in Providence. “No one is just left outside.”

Ostiguy also said his shelter does not turn people away. “If there’s no place to put someone here, we’ll even drive them to Crossroads if necessary,” he said.

For homeless people, Johnson said, the biggest problem is often unemployment.

“How many months can you go without a job?” she asked. “In the end, we’re all just people in this world, doing the best that we can. Most homeless people are just down on their luck.”

Ostiguy has a similar view. “Homelessness is not so much a problem as it is a symptom of other problems. Our economy doesn’t work for a lot of people. Jobs don’t pay enough. Our society works for a lot of people, but not for these folks.”

Barrera said that dealing with myriad state and local agencies and schools can be frustrating. “For someone to end up on our doorstep, a lot of systems have to have failed,” she said.

Ostiguy said Newport’s reputation as a desirable international resort often belies the facts.

“Newport is the state’s fourth poorest city in terms of the percentage of low-income families,” he said. “A lot of us take things for granted. We have homes to go to. But not everybody does.”

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