2018-01-04 / Front Page

Newport Schools See Spike in Homelessness

By Brooke Constance White

The number of homeless students in the Newport School District has dramatically increased in the last year, and administrators are attributing the rise to a variety of factors, including an affordable housing shortage that some say is approaching “crisis” levels.

According to a report completed by a nonprofit association of social services agencies and community organizations known as Newport Partnership for Families, 61 students identified as homeless this year, a 56-percent increase over numbers from this time last year. The data also showed that 33 families in the district identified as homeless this school year compared to last, an increase of 50 percent. Last year, 39 students and 22 families identified as homeless, the report said.

Being homeless, as defined by the district, doesn’t just refer to those living at shelters or in cars, but also includes anyone temporarily living with family or friends, or residing in a motel or elsewhere without a lease.

“As far as we know, we don’t have families living in cars or doorways,” said Rebekah Rosen-Gomez, a family service coordinator at Pell Elementary School. “Most are living in a shelter or are staying with friends or family, which is good, but it still makes it abundantly clear that there is an affordable housing crisis here in Newport.”

One reason administrators give for the increase in homelessness is the temporary closure of 18 units at the Rolling Green apartment complex late last spring for planned construction, many of which units are federally subsidized. According to Rosen-Gomez, at least 10 families with students at Pell were affected by the closure.

“We already have a strain on our affordable housing in Newport and then you add 10 families to that and it’s even more of a strain,” she said. “[Rolling Green representatives] said they made their best effort to rehouse everyone but we’re not convinced of that.”

Another factor affecting the increase in homeless students that the district has identified is an influx of families from Puerto Rico and Texas who were displaced by hurricanes Maria and Harvey, Rosen Gomez said, and do not have permanent housing.

Yet a third reason, according to Rosen-Gomez, is an increase in reported homelessness, wherein homeless families have self-identified based on the school district’s broad definition of the term “homeless.” While the district has always known there were more homeless families than were identified, an increasing number are feeling comfortable coming forward as homeless, she said.

Sharon Carter, director of the Newport Partnership for Families, agreed with Rosen-Gomez that more students and families are identifying as homeless, but could not speculate as to why this is the case.

“We don't really know why more families are self-identifying except that I think more families are feeling comfortable coming forward as homeless,” Carter said. “Years ago, I think people were more embarrassed to be homeless and today it seems like there's less of that.”

Carter said Newport Partnership for Families refers homeless families to other community organizations to ensure that needs such as food, childcare and job placement are being met. The group also works closely with Child and Family RI, a social service agency, and Lucy’s Hearth, an emergency and transitional shelter, and meets weekly to discuss each of the homeless families in the community.

Carter said Newport’s school district also receives federal funding through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s largest homeless assistance program, to assist with basic human needs and to help provide tutoring and after-school scholarships to homeless families in the district.

“We have a great partnership with other agencies and organizations, and work very closely to refer our families so they can get the support they need,” Carter said. “We work collaboratively to deal with these issues to make sure that our families are supported and taken care of.”

Newport schools Superintendent Colleen Jermain said she was alarmed by the increasing numbers of homeless students the report showed. Although the district often sees new families coming into the district at this time of the year, the homeless numbers don’t usually increase so drastically, she said.

When asked what the community can do to help, Jermain said family service coordinators at Pell are always looking for clean, warm clothes to give to students in need.

At Rogers High School, she said administrators need hats and gloves for students. If nonperishable food items like canned goods and boxed dry items are donated, Jermain said the school will ensure that the items get to those who need them most.

"We work hard with our partners to support our families in whatever ways we can," she said.

Return to top