It dropped down to single digit temperatures this week; conditions perilous for anyone caught on the street. Some will be fortunate enough to spend the nights in their cars. Others will find shelter at a system that is already short 156 beds. But many will sleep outside; beneath bridges, in abandoned lots, behind dumpsters, in makeshift camps in the woods.
It was under these circumstances that we held our homeless memorial on Wednesday morning. We do this yearly to remember those involved in the issue of homelessness who passed without seeing an end to homelessness. We usually do this quietly, inviting people to attend the ceremony and luncheon as members of the general public. But this year there was a great amount of press interest, and it feels important to explain the event and why we do it.
The people who died over the last year were a varied group. Some had experienced homelessness in their lives. Others had fought to end it. Some died on the street, others died in warm beds. They were all integrally involved in this issue.
They were daughters and sons, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters. They laughed and cried, and they lived and died; just as anyone else does.
There is a real consequence to allowing homelessness to continue: we will hold another memorial next year for those who will die this year. We will honor our dead again and again. We will do this each year until no one else dies without a home, until no one else dies fighting to make sure no Rhode Islander has to go without a home.
The cost of inaction and half-measures will be paid with human lives; doing nothing is not free. People will die on the street. Deaths that could have been avoided. Deaths that we know how to prevent. Our state has a plan to end homelessness, based on actual real-world solutions that work. It merely requires funding to begin working. Homelessness is not an impossible issue to solve; we know the solution.
Unfortunately it costs money to implement, and some of that money will have to come from the state. But switching our government’s mindset from that of a state that allows homelessness to continue to that of an anti-homelessness state will save the state money as well. People will get back on their feet and cease to be marked as “homeless” and instead be known simply as “Rhode Islanders” without any qualifiers.
The best way to honor those who have passed this last year is to end homelessness in this state. Until such a time that our government decides this is a priority, that the cost in human life and suffering is too high, we will honor our dead as best we can.