On homelessness, Rhode Island finally leads

Official Rhode Island's approach to the homelessness crisis has been unimaginative at best, heartless at worst.

Two years ago, I wrote a piece for the Phoenix titled "How Rhode Island Can Eliminate Homelessness." And while the headline might sound fanciful, it really isn't. Most homeless are on the street temporarily - displaced by a fire or an abusive relationship. At the core are the chronically homeless - a population that, in tiny Rhode Island, numbers maybe 500 people.

For decades, the hardcore homeless here and across the country made for an incredibly vexing public policy challenge. Often ravaged by mental illness and addiction, they were hard to find, hard to keep in treatment, and enormously expensive. But advocates have known, since the 1990s, how to get this population off the streets.

The approach, pioneered in New York City, is known as "housing first." And it is as simple as it is radical: give the homeless a place to live, with no strings attached. Only with the stability of a home can they be expected to engage treatment in a consistent and effective way.

This turns the old formula - require the homeless to get clean and sober before giving them housing - on its head. But the research suggests it works.

Rhode Island, then, if it were willing to put up the money to house this population, could be the first state to end homelessness. But if the state has not stepped up to the plate, here, to the unending disappointment of advocates, it has lately shown some leadership on another front.

In recent weeks, the General Assembly became the first state legislature to pass a homeless bill of rights. Governor Chafee has signed the measure.

The new law gives the homeless the right to use public spaces - like parks and libraries - as anyone else would. It bars discrimination, based on housing status, by doctors and employers. It says the homeless should have access to the documents they need to vote.

Is it enforceable? Maybe. Maybe not. But advocates see it as a conversation starter - a way to get to the table with the police chief or the emergency room staff.

John Joyce, the formerly homeless co-director of the Rhode Island Housing Advocacy Project who drafted the first iteration of the bill with his co-director Megan Smith, said a measure with a little teeth gives advocates some bargaining power. "If it was just going to be warm and fuzzy, we wouldn't get any attention," he told me.

Rhode Island passed the measure as municipalities nationwide step up a campaign to criminalize homelessness: forbidding panhandling or loitering or camping in certain public spaces. National advocates, then, see the Ocean State measure as a "beacon," as one told me.

As I write in a piece that will appear in this week's Phoenix, a state that has followed, for too long, on the fight against homelessness as taken an unexpected leap into the lead. But if it really wants to do something bold, it will end homelessness. It can.

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