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RI NOW at Occupy State House

December 14, 2011

Written by RI NOW Activist Shandi Hanna:

On December 10, 2011 nearly 200 people gathered in Burnside Park in Providence to be a part of a rally and march that aimed to bring awareness to the issues of homelessness and affordable housing in RI.  These protestors were a variety of men, women and children, some struggling with these issues themselves.  The event was coordinated by Occupy Providence, the RI Coalition for the Homeless, and Direct Action for Rights and Equality, but was also supported and advertised by a number of other agencies, including RI National Organization for Women and many others.  I attended the rally as an active member of RI NOW and as a young woman who is personally inspired and energized by the Occupy movement and the potential it has for making change.  The rally began at Burnside Park, which has been “Occupied” for nearly 2 months by the 24 hour a day protesters that make up Occupy Providence.  After some guidance from Occupy organizers, the march began and took us through the streets of downtown Providence.  While we marched people waved signs bearing messages such as “Housing is a Human Right” and “Stop Foreclosures and Evictions”, and chanted rhymes such as “Money for homes and education, not for banks and corporations”.  The march concluded with the participants gathering on the State House steps, where we listened to speeches from homeless advocates as well as individuals who were or currently are homeless.  The rally at the State House was followed by discussion groups among the protestors and rally organizers, a pot luck dinner, and the setting up of tents to camp out on the State House lawn.

According to the RI Coalition for the Homeless, the top two reasons people become homeless in Rhode Island are a lack of adequate income and the lack of affordable housing.  If an individual works at a minimum wage job, in order to afford the average 2 bedroom apartment in RI, they would need to work 102 hours a week for 52 weeks a year.  That’s a small price to pay for a roof over your head, no?  Now let’s imagine instead of an individual it is a single family household headed by a mother, who in order to work needs to find childcare for her child in addition to all the other expenses.  Given the recurring cuts to programs such as The Child Care Assistance Program, RI Works Cash Assistance, Rite Care Health Insurance, and staffing cuts to the Child Support Enforcement Agency, a working mother has very few supports to help her work and maintain her household.  One third of all single-mother families have incomes below the Federal Poverty Level (which in 2008 was $17,600 for a family of 3), a statistic which includes those single-mother families who are receiving government assistance.  With numbers like this, it is no surprise that out of the roughly 4,400 people who experienced homelessness at some point last year, an estimated 39% of those were families, 13% of which were children under the age of 5.  On average, 15% of homeless persons found themselves without a home due to being victims of domestic violence, the majority of this group being women.

In Rhode Island, the lack of affordable housing is an enormous problem, especially when coupled with the extremely high unemployment rate that has plagued our state for years now.  Those living near and especially under the Federal Poverty Level are one mistake or miscalculation away from finding themselves homeless, and many times the mistake is not theirs, but instead their landlords.  Between January and June of 2011 in, an average of 188 resident foreclosure deeds were filed per month in Rhode Island, which is especially devastating given the number of multi-family homes that were foreclosed on.  During that time period, 317 multi-family homes were foreclosed, which equals out to roughly 908 individuals and families that lived in those homes being kicked out.  Add to that the 811 single-family homes and condominiums that were foreclosed on in the same time period, that leaves a total of 1,719 homes lost in RI in 6 months alone.

Homelessness and affordable housing are a huge issue for everyone in RI, and especially for women and children.  The intention of the rally and march was not only to bring attention to these issues and get people talking about them, but also to let everyone know what can be done to help.  There are three key pieces of legislation that will be introduced in the upcoming legislative session that are aimed to combat these issues and should be strongly supported by citizens and lawmakers alike.

1)    Dedicated Funding for Affordable Housing: RI is one of only 9 states that doesn’t have a dedicated stream of funding for affordable housing, which is imperative to ending homelessness.  Affordable housing often takes multiple years to build, and in order to keep up with the demand, a reliable funding stream needs to be available for those willing to build these homes.

2)    Homeless Bill of Rights: This bill is to ensure that homeless Rhode Islanders are granted the same rights, privileges, and access to services as any other citizen, including the right to vote, use public spaces, and get equal treatment by police, medical professionals and employers.

3)    Just Cause Bill:  This legislation will prohibit banks from evicting former tenants and homeowners of foreclosed properties unless they fail to pay rent, harm the property, or otherwise give “just cause” for eviction and will allow more individuals and families to stay in their homes rather than the streets.  In late July of 2010, “An Act to Stabilize Neighborhoods” was unanimously passed in Massachusetts legislature, which is the country’s most comprehensive law that protects people in foreclosed properties.  This act contains a “just cause” section that is similar to the protections which will be allowed if this bill passes.

Now is the time to start talking to the people in your community as well as your Senators and Representatives about these bills and where they stand on the issues of homelessness and affordable housing.  These issues are important to all of Rhode Islands’ residents, and especially woman and children.  Let’s make this the last winter that our fellow residents will be out in the cold.

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