This editorial appeared Thursday in the Newport Daily News.
Especially in recent years, as the economy has struggled to rebound from the Great Recession, a primary focus of campaigns for affordable, permanent housing has been on adults who are unemployed or underemployed.
But at a forum last weekend in Newport, the focus was on the effect of homelessness on children.
Children without a home are more likely to develop health problems from a lack of proper nutrition and often miss school, depriving them of the opportunity education provides to break the cycle of poverty, experts said during the forum, sponsored by the Newport County Citizens to End Homelessness. Further, homelessness often can lead to substance abuse and criminal activity.
“This is serious. What we are doing to these children and these families is serious damage,” said Judy Jones, a member of the citizens group. “And these effects can last a lifetime.”
Sadly, children made up more than a quarter of the people who used emergency homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters or transitional housing in 2012, according to statistics from Rhode Island KIDS COUNT. There were 1,277 children in homeless families in 2012.
It does not come as a surprise to anyone who has lived in Rhode Island that housing here is not cheap. The fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Rhode Island is $928 a month. To keep the housing and utility costs to 30 percent of one’s income, one would have to make $37,139 a year to afford that apartment, according to the 2014 “Out of Reach” report compiled by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
A full-time job at Rhode Island’s minimum wage of $8 an hour would gross just under $17,000 a year. And the federal welfare program, formally known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, hasn’t changed in more than 20 years, said Stephanie Geller, a policy analyst with KIDS COUNT. A family of three can collect $554 a month, or less than $7,000 a year.
In addition to programs that help individuals and families find shelter — and eventually, permanent housing — and help adults find appropriate employment, programs that help provide structure for children are critical, experts said.
The stress level is higher in homeless families, and that leads to arguments and even violence, said Rebekah Gomez, family services coordinator with the Newport School Department. Homeless children don’t really have a normal life outside of school. They can’t have friends over to play, and they don’t have any place to do their homework, which often leads to truancy problems, she said.
All of these things are hard enough to do in a typical household, never mind one living in a car or moving from place to place.
That makes support for the state’s strategic plan to end homelessness — called Opening Doors Rhode Island — all the more urgent. The plan was released in March 2012, but the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless earlier this year gave the state a “C+” rating in terms of implementation, largely because of the lack of an ongoing commitment to fully fund housing programs. Last year, the General Assembly included $750,000 in the state budget for programs that address homelessness, but it is an annual battle to ensure housing programs are funded.
This year, there is legislation (H7557) pending in the General Assembly that would create a permanent emergency housing assistance fund. It was referred to the House Finance Committee in late February, where it has languished since.
This is a matter that needs immediate attention. The goal of ending homelessness in Rhode Island will never be achieved if the General Assembly does not act.
It would be a smart investment: Long-term affordable housing solutions are more cost-effective than the use of emergency shelters.
Just as importantly, having a home to call their own is infinitely better for individuals, families and children.