As marchers gathered for their May Day march on the west side of Providence to protest unfair economic conditions, a crowd of over thirty people, nine of whom were sitting legislators, listened to a briefing in the Rhode Island Senate lounge on the state’s Plan to End Homelessness, known as Opening Doors Rhode Island. The briefing was presented by Mike Tondra, Executive Director of the Office of Housing and Community Development and Eric Hirsch, Professor of Sociology at Providence College. The Plan would spend $130 million with the long-term goal of ending homeless in the state of Rhode Island, starting with veterans and then focusing on those chronically homeless; by focusing on the neediest populations first, it would significantly reduce the costs of homeless in the state.
Mr. Tondra, who also is the Executive Director of the Housing Resources Commission which adopted the plan earlier this year, presented the origin of the Plan, how it was developed with the input of housing authorities; local, state and federal departments; and advocates and charities. Prof. Hirsch provided the factual basis for the Plan. He explained that the $130 million price tag associated with the Plan is one that takes into a variety of sources; including federal, state, local, nonprofit groups, and other institutions like universities and hospitals.
Prof. Hirsch said the cost of keeping families and the chronically homeless in homeless shelters was ultimately more expensive than paying for supportive housing, the “housing first” model. According to him, the costs of homelessness for 48 people currently total just over $1.5 million, working out to $31,617 per client served, whether it be in hospital or ER visits, staying in a shelter, or spending time in jail or prison.
“And that’s not including ambulance costs,” he said. “The city of Providence spends over $300,000 per month on ambulance runs.”
In the very first year after the Plan would be implemented, the total cost would drop to slightly more than $400,000 for 48 people; with most of the costs going towards housing subsidies and supportive services. The savings mostly come from less need for hospitals and shelters, as housing would provide less need for either. The savings work out to $7946 per person.
Worcester, MA, has already done this, Prof. Hirsch pointed out, saying that it wasn’t merely fanciful thinking. There, the city took all of the money it reserved for shelter and put it into vouchers for supportive housing, reducing chronic homelessness from a high of about 100 down to merely four individuals. Sen. John Tassoni (D — Smithfield), the briefing’s sponsor, concurred, “if Worcester can do it, Rhode Island can do it.”
Beyond all the facts and figures, the moral argument stood out. Said one homeless man, Vern, to the assembled legislators, “don’t make your children and grandchildren go through what I’ve gone through.” Said Prof. Hirsch, “does anyone here really believe that it’s morally acceptable to allow someone to spend eight years without a home?” When no one responded, he said, “that was a rhetorical question.”