State House Soup Kitchen puts focus on the poor

Activists, homeless people and others gather during the State House Soup Kitchen (photo courtesy of the RICH)

Around 70 activists and homeless people gathered at the State House for a Jobs With Justice-sponsored “State House Soup Kitchen” aimed to get state lawmakers to invest in jobs, housing, transportation, and ending hunger.

Kicking off slightly later than its 3:30 p.m. starting time, speakers covered a wide range of anti-poverty topics including raising taxes on the wealthy, to preventing cuts to and expanding RIPTA service, and funding permanent supportive housing. Members of the homeless community filtered through or sat and ate, listening to the speakers. Senator John Tassoni (D – Smithfield, N. Smithfield) made a brief appearance.

The State House Soup Kitchen, which happens weekly on Wednesday from 3:00 PM to 4:00, is put on by the Rhode Island Housing Advocacy Project and the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless. It is currently the only such soup kitchen held inside a state capitol building since a temporary soup kitchen in protest of cuts to state unemployment benefits in Florida on March 9 of last year.

Justin Kelly, an unemployed painter with Local 195 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades told the assembled that they “shouldn’t have to have a soup kitchen in the State House” but that lawmakers needed the pressure as they attempt to “balance our budgets by targeting the most vulnerable among us.”

Jennifer Flynn, a speaker from Occupy Providence was next, and covered a host of topics, including cuts to disability spending, saying that disabled people like her sister who has down syndrome are being punished for the misdeeds of the investment bankers who collapsed the economy in 2008. She also said she was thankful for the members of the homeless community who assisted Occupy Providence during its encampment. Finally, she finished by calling for high-income earners to taxed at higher rates, calling it a “fair tax” which elicited cheers from the crowd.

Don Rhodes of the Rhode Island RIPTA Riders called for preventing cuts to RIPTA services, and said that “actually, we need to expand it.” His speech illustrated that RIPTA provided a way for low-income folks to reach work, either jobs or interviews. As an example, he used his own time as a manager for RadioShack, which included overseeing stores in cities and towns including Providence, Warwick and East Providence. Calling upon the revised unemployment rates from the last year, he said that expanding RIPTA would likely have an impact.

Jennifer Flynn of Occupy Providence speaks to the soup kitchen (photo courtesy of RICH)

Jean Johnson, Executive Director of the House of Hope Community Development Corporation, asked the assembled to “help legislators take a leap of common sense” and called for a living wage. She also said that “no one wants to be in a park or a bridge forever, or in a shelter forever,” and called for dedicated funding stream for permanent housing as well as spending on jobs so that residents of Harrington Hall (the state’s largest homeless shelter in Cranston, which is in poor condition) who have skills can return to work.

Ending the event, the Reverend James Ford said that the state house is “filled with good people and a couple of scoundrels.” Someone in the crowd called out, “only a couple?” causing the crowd to laugh. Rev. Ford told of listening to a story on NPR of a child who told reporters he and his family were so hungry they ate a rat.

“There is no place in this country for people being homeless,” he said, or for people going hungry. He blamed the “scoundrels” in the country for allowing such things to go on in contrast to the “good people” who attempt to stop it.

After the speaking program, activists and members of the homeless community passed out lunch bags on the floors of the House and Senate, which had the following statistics about Rhode Island attached:

  • 50,000 households are considered food insecure (unable to stock pantries/pack lunched at end of the month)
  • 4,410 were homeless in 2011, up 484 from 2007
  • 172,000 receive SNAP benefits
  • the unemployment rate stands at 10.8%

The attachment also advocated for funding for affordable housing (S2203, H7265, and H7237), the “Homeless Bill of Rights” (S2052, H7173) and “Just Cause” legislation to prevent foreclosure (S2212, H7136), as well as called on legislators to create jobs. According Ms. Johnson, “this is not a leap of faith, it is a leap of common sense.”

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A native-born Rhode Islander, educated in Providence Public Schools, went to college in North Carolina and a political junkie and pessimistic optimist.

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