A new community group, Family Housing Support, can be commended for exercising a great deal of due diligence in formulating a response to the problem of homeless families in this region. When they met for the first time in June, at Dunn’s Corners Community Church, there was a clear sense among the hundred or so participants that something needed to be done, but many unanswered questions arose about the most feasible and effective course of action. But over the course of four months, in general sessions and steering committee meetings at other churches in Westerly and Charlestown, the interfaith group was able to define its mission and decide on several short-term goals. Their efforts have taken on greater urgency because winter is approaching, as is the most active season for charitable giving.
Family Housing Support’s mission is to “establish a community partnership in order to address the needs of families who are homeless or on the verge of homelessness in the Westerly-Chariho area.” There are dozens of such families in this area: the two public school districts identified 90 homeless children in the 2011-12 school year, and there were more than 120 the year before. The group’s mission reflects a particular need: Although the WARM Center provides a shelter for homeless adults, there is no placement service for homeless families in Washington County.
“There simply isn’t anywhere for these families to go,” Russ Partridge, WARM’s director, told the group at its initial meeting. They end up in the basements and garages of relatives, or even in cars and campgrounds. The nine apartments that make up WARM’s Harvest Homes program have a long waiting list and are intended to promote family self-sufficiency through services like vocational counseling and financial education. But, according to Joe Carr, co-chairman of the steering committee, “Right now, there is not a short-term piece.” The group therefore decided to focus on short-term housing that would get homeless families off the streets: two apartments that could house families in crisis for up to 90 days, until they could get on their feet or find a longer-term housing program.
It’s a fairly expensive proposition, nearly $20,000 annually for each apartment. That figure would cover rent, utilities, insurance, and administrative and case management services. If an agreement can be worked out, the WARM Center would administer the apartments. Clearly a lot of difficult work needs to be done, both in terms of organization and fundraising, and in securing and furnishing the apartments. As Carr said at one point, “This type of project will be a long journey, and we have a long way to travel.” The group does have the advantage of numbers — more than 140 people have attended its meetings so far, and 14 different faith communities and several civic organizations have gotten involved. It also has access to trained professionals who can provide help to needy families in a “respectful way,” as Partridge put.
Most important, however, is that Family Housing Support can claim obedience to a moral imperative that dates to the time of Moses and insists on our duty to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and comfort the sick. Surely such an elemental appeal will resonate in an area that counts ample accumulations of material wealth (on the shoreline and elsewhere) as among its many blessings.