Opinion/Santilli: The future of homelessness will be decided this winter

Karen A. Santilli is president and CEO of Crossroads Rhode Island, the state’s leading provider of housing and services to people experiencing homelessness.

Homelessness is on the rise in Rhode Island. After years of decline, local homeless services providers reported a 68 percent increase in the number of people sleeping outside last year, as well as a 15 percent increase in the number of families experiencing homelessness, many of whom lost their homes due to the lingering economic impacts of COVID-19.

Sadly, the worst is not behind us. As the nights grow longer and the temperatures colder, Rhode Island’s homeless crisis is likely to grow. I am extremely grateful to our elected officials for dedicating funding to create additional emergency shelter beds this winter.

This is important work. Getting people off the street will help save lives. Temporary stays in emergency shelters also make it easier for people to access the critical support necessary to help them end their homelessness, such as basic needs, housing assistance, and education and employment services.

But emergency shelter is just that: a short-term solution designed to address an immediate problem. So it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the need to also invest in creating more permanent and affordable housing, which is the only proven solution for truly ending homelessness.

Unfortunately, Rhode Island had a critical shortage of housing that people with very low incomes could afford before COVID-19 and the pandemic has definitely made things much worse. Low housing supply decreases vacancy, raises rents, and prices more and more people out of the market. It’s a challenge that perplexes leaders and policy makers in virtually all of our cities and towns.

The good news is we’re not Los Angeles or Seattle or New York City, where the sheer number of people experiencing homelessness seems almost insurmountable. Indeed, Rhode Island’s small size, ability to innovate and the availability of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding makes us uniquely well-positioned to end the unnecessary suffering.

In fact, the creation of just a few hundred permanent supportive apartments would allow Crossroads to house every single person currently staying in one of our emergency shelters and significantly decrease the number of people experiencing homelessness in our state.

Even better, given an adequate supply of affordable housing and the supportive services necessary to help people stay housed, nearly 90% of Crossroads’ clients eventually become self-sufficient and never become homeless again.

As we head into the holiday season, our state finds itself at a critical inflection point that seems likely to determine the course of the Rhode Island’s homeless crisis for years to come. With hundreds of Rhode Islanders already living on the street and hundreds of others at risk of becoming homelessness, the time to invest in building more housing that people with very low incomes can afford is now.

No one should have to sleep in an alley, under a highway overpass or in their car. So I encourage our elected officials to take advantage of the ARPA funds to make a once-in-a-generation investment to ensure that every Rhode Islander has a place to call home.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Opinion/Santilli: The future of homelessness will be decided this winter