On any given night, more than 1,100 people are homeless in Rhode Island. For the past 30 years, the House of Hope has been trying to get those living in shelters or on the street into housing. This month, Jim Hummel finds out the nonprofit does it in a number of ways: from street teams that go to where the homeless are staying - to a new mobile shower unit that has helped draw hundreds and connect them with much-needed medical services and put some into a place they can call their own.
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On a bone-chilling morning five days before Christmas a crowd begins to gather outside a mobile shower unit in South Providence. Some are living on the street, others arrive from shelters in Cranston or Pawtucket.
Over the next two hours they will get something that many of us take for granted: a hot shower, a haircut and a chance to see a licensed nurse practitioner, who will help connect them with a variety of medical services.
Shower to Empower is a 20-foot-long mobile unit with a 150-gallon tank and two private showers that bookend a screening room and a barber’s chair. It is the latest service provided by the House of Hope Community Development Corporation, a Warwick-based nonprofit whose mission ‘is to prevent and end homeless’ in Rhode Island.
With more than a thousand people on any given night homeless right now, it’s a formidable task.
Jaworski: “Those numbers mean something, and each of those numbers is a person and a household and each of those folks have a story and they all deserve housing. And we’re going to fight as much as we can to make those opportunities available for them.”
Laura Jaworski is House of Hope’s executive director. She says Shower to Empower, which has provided showers to 1,100 people since it debuted last spring, has been a powerful tool to reengage people who have become disconnected from social and medical services.
Jaworski: “What really makes our Shower to Empower program unique is in going through that process and talking with our outreach workers and constituents, one of the pieces that’s really missing is this medical navigation component. And so there’s many of our folks that are disconnected from medical services, and behavioral healthcare services that really need an advocate - someone that can give a little bit of triage on the scene. Maybe as they’ve come out of the shower or emerged from having their hair cut and say, ‘Gee I really need this looked at, or I’m really struggling with managing my medication.’”
But it’s housing that is at the heart of House of Hope’s mission. The nonprofit began modestly 30 years in Warwick with this property in the Governor Francis section of the city. It has grown to more than 70 units that serve 135 people, including this 10-unit Victoria home in the Pawtuxet section of Warwick.
The 200-year-old structure took five years and $2.5 million to renovate, but now features individual units, a common cooking area, combined living/dining room and a case manager to help them navigate coming in off the street.
Mercado: “Everybody’s an individual, everybody battles something. It can be something small, it can be something large.”
Jackie Mercado knows what it’s like to be homeless. She had been on the streets off and on for a decade before finding House and Hope and eventually working her way up to be the case manager here.
Mercado: “You can empathize with homelessness and understand and know that feeling, you have tools now to help other people.
Hummel: “What does it do for the people when they move in there? What do you see?”
Mercado: “It gives them a sense of peace, in a way, in the sense of safety. I’ve seen them grow from being out in the streets chronically homeless to having their own homes, wanting to fix it up, wanting to be home, wanting to stay out of the cold weather, wanting to stay out of unsocial environments.”
Residents here and others who live in units like this one off Jefferson Boulevard in Warwick can stay here as long as they want. The rent is 30 percent of their incomes and they are chosen off a waiting list maintained by Rhode Island Housing.
Mercado says some residents want to move on to more independent living and House of Hope will work with other agencies to place them in affordable housing when it’s available.
Mercado: “Some of them decide to move forward, just because they want to be more independent. They already have work in place, mental health, everything they need all the goals met and they felt like they wanted to move forward.”
Rivera: “One of the biggest things in outreach is engagement. It takes time to develop trust with people who have been homeless for a significant amount of time. They’ve lost faith in the systems that have been there already that are supposed to be helping them.”
Sabrina Rivera has been an outreach worker for House of Hope the past three years. She, too, was homeless, with an infant more than 15 years ago.
Rivera: “You cry every day. Part of the passion that comes from what I do is that I know that these systems are failing people. That it takes way too long for someone to get the help that they need. And that people have approached places to get help and there’s not enough of it. I didn’t realize that there was so many people who had lost faith that anybody could help them. The resistance was real. What I got to learn is that everyone has a story and they’re all different stories, but it builds as to what was that moment that let that person down in life, that made them give up and say hey there’s no hope for me now.”
Rivera said Shower to Empower has been drawing in homeless people who need services to others who can point them in the right direction, including a licensed nurse practitioner.
Rivera: “These people are not going to keep appointments. Most of them don’t have a phone, a lot of people do wake up and do not know what their day is going to look like. Pair that with some mental illness and substance use disorders, you’re not going to get people to walk into an office and keep an appointment.”
But Rivera says even those who do engage on services, get something that many of us take for granted.
Rivera: “What’s better than going to the foot clinic, getting your feet checked, taking a nice shower, and then getting a free haircut and feeling human?”
Irv Munoz, a barber in Lincoln, has been volunteering his day off every week to give haircuts to anyone who wants one.
Munoz: “I’m not rich, I can’t give any money so I had the talent to give haircuts. So - you look good you feel good, right? I love what I do - so by me being able to put a smile on somebody’s face by giving them a haircut, that’s all that matters to me.”
Bergan: “I was living in an abandoned trailer.”
Grace Bergan is living proof that homeless can happen to anyone. She lived in a 3-bedroom house in Narragansett, before getting into a serious accident. Her marriage crumbled and the house was foreclosed on.
She was on the street with her dog for a year before finding House of Hope, which has placed her in transitional housing.
Bergan: “House of Hope has given me a lot of strength. It’s given me a place to go, given me shelter for the last year. And I am eternally grateful. I can’t even express. Just having a key to turn, to be able to have a bed to lay in, to have food at my disposal. To eat when I want to eat, to be able to feed my dog.”
House of Hope has a housing first philosophy - getting homeless into apartments, then working on other details of the residents lives. It’s a lot different than it was 30 years ago.
Jaworski: “They needed to prove they could maintain sobriety, maintain a budget, maintain savings, maintain a job. All of these things. And once you had accomplished all of these milestones, if you will, then you earned housing. And what we learned over time is that not is it really not effective but it also didn’t model how the world operates. So what ‘housing first’ does is it provides someone with a home first. Then all of those other things fall into place, sometimes naturally, but sometimes just slowly over time. Where folks have a door that locks, they have a place they can sleep and go home to at night. And they find they start reengaging with their medical care provider and start taking care of themselves. They’re able to cook meals, they’re able to have a good night’s sleep and that does wonders for folks.”
It means that House of Hope has often taken risks as innovators.
Jaworski: “And not being afraid to fail. If it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work, but what we’ve seen with models like housing first is that it really is effective. People are really able to be successful and stay housed and moved on from even our housing into their own private affordable housing.”
Statistics show that more than 4,000 people annually in Rhode Island are homeless.
Hummel: “Do those numbers overwhelm you at times?”
Jaworski: “They can be overwhelming. But what I do when I feel overwhelmed is I go out and I see the work we’re doing first hand and I know we’re making a difference. A problem can be so overwhelming and so daunting - but when we narrow the scope and we make a difference for one person then we’ve had purpose and we’ve met our mission and our goal.”
In Warwick, Jim Hummel, for The Rhode Island Spotlight.