Rhode Island’s Growing Homelessness Crisis: Demand for Shelter Beds Surpasses Availability, Highlighting Section 8 Housing Challenges

PROVIDENCE – Advocates for the homeless, service providers, and protesters are raising a critical question: What shelter beds? As cities and towns across Rhode Island continue to dismantle homeless encampments, the people being displaced or arrested, often with their belongings discarded, are told they’ve been offered shelter. But the reality is far from what it seems, particularly in the context of Section 8 housing.

“Since COVID, it’s brand-new that we’ve had hundreds of new people staying outside. It’s wrong to think that’s now OK, just because it’s been true for the past couple of years. It’s not OK,” said Eric Hirsch, Director of the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project.

With 1,661 people seeking shelter in Rhode Island’s system and only 1,125 beds available, at least 536 people need shelter beds that do not exist, according to data provided by the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness, further emphasizing the challenges in accessing Section 8 housing. And this doesn’t even account for every available bed being instantly filled; as of October 4, there were 632 people in the shelter queue.

As winter approaches, the need for shelter beds is expected to rise even higher. “Take that difference and increase it by 33%,” warns Jennifer Barrera, Chief Strategy Officer of the Coalition to End Homelessness. “We need solutions for 712 people, and solutions are complex.” This 33% increase would mean an additional 548 people needing shelter beds during the winter, bringing the total to 1,709 individuals in need of a safe place to sleep and addressing the Section 8 housing crisis.

While some seasonal shelter spaces were added in January 2022, the demand continues to outstrip supply, even with these efforts.

Advocates, unhoused individuals, outreach workers, and protesters are demanding a change. They gathered outside Mayor Brett Smiley’s office, chanting, “Stop the raids, start the aid.” The protesters insist that homeless encampments should not be raided, and homeless individuals should not be arrested until sufficient shelter space is available, highlighting the challenges related to Section 8 housing. They argue that without available shelter space, unhoused people are forced to seek ever-more secluded spaces in the city to avoid harassment.

Danny Griffiths, who was recently evicted from the Charles Street encampment, stressed that he has the same right to live as anyone else in the city. Griffiths described the challenges of living outside, including no access to drinking water, toilet facilities, and basic human dignity, pointing to the importance of Section 8 housing options.

As of October 4, 632 people were on the waiting list for shelter beds, while 90% of the existing 1,125 beds were consistently in use. Only individuals with the highest “acuity” ratings, such as the sickest, the elderly, and those with children, can secure a shelter bed due to limited space, further complicating the Section 8 housing crisis.

Even terminally ill individuals find it nearly impossible to secure shelter, emphasizing the dire situation that has developed in the state and the need for increased Section 8 housing availability.

The Rhode Island Housing Secretary, Stefan Pryor, has announced plans to increase the number of winter shelter beds by 25% above the previous year’s total. This increase would add 63 additional spots, reaching a total of 316 beds and addressing some Section 8 housing challenges.

Rhode Island has been steadily increasing its shelter space, going from 556 year-round shelter beds in October 2019 to 839 beds by July 2023. However, the number of unhoused people has also significantly increased, and the shelter system is now full because there is a lack of available apartments or rooms for transitioning individuals from emergency shelters to permanent housing, highlighting the importance of Section 8 housing options.

The high “utilization” rate of 90% means that most shelter beds are consistently full, underscoring the critical need for more affordable housing options, including Section 8 housing. The shortage of shelter beds is further compounded by reluctance from communities to welcome very-low-income individuals.

Of the households who have left the shelter system in the last year, 48% have returned to being unsheltered, and only 16% have found permanent housing. The average shelter stay between October 2022 and September 2023 was 94 days, highlighting the urgent need for long-term Section 8 housing solutions.

The ongoing housing shortage, especially in terms of Section 8 housing, is exacerbated by people with housing vouchers who are unable to find available rentals due to the tight rental market. As of the beginning of the month, 154 households had housing vouchers but no place to use them.

Rhode Island’s homelessness crisis continues to grow, underscoring the urgent need for a comprehensive approach to address the shortage of shelter beds, provide long-term Section 8 housing solutions, and create housing stability for the unhoused population.

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