For the Families
The homeless in Rhode Island are not just the people you see hanging out on the street or in front of a shelter. Families now account for rapidly-growing percentage of the homeless population, a huge increase from just a few years ago. This week Jim Hummel introduces us to a woman - and an agency - helping families get back on their feet.
The scene plays out every day in front of Crossroads Rhode Island.
And as you pass by, this is probably your image of the homeless: single people, hanging out on the sidewalk in the middle of the day. But that's only part of the story.
Nolan: ``We have seen a 124 percent increase in the number of families, so we've more than doubled the number of families.''
Nolan: ``I think the economy has caught up with the families.''
Anne Nolan has been Crossroad's executive director since 2001, going back to when it was the old Traveler's Aid on Union Street. Crossroads, as the state's major center for the homeless, last year served 3,000 people. Forty percent were families.
Nolan: ``You've heard of trickledown economics?
This is trickledown economics in its purest sense. In other words, people are getting pushed out the bottom. And it takes a while, it's like that French press when you're making coffee. You push down and everybody gets squashed. Most homeless people you have no idea they're homeless. The kids are in school sitting next to your kids, waiting on you at Dunkin' Donuts.
They're everywhere. And they're struggling. And they'd rather not have people know they're homeless.''
Dove: ``People that think it's just welfare moms or people just trying to leech off the system, there are so many people who are just literally a paycheck away.''
Cicley Dove runs Crossroads Family Center, a mile south of the agency's headquarters in South Providence. Crossroads bought the building - the old Pearson funeral home - in 2006, with families specifically in mind.
Dove: ``Families were literally sleeping on the floor in conference rooms and if you're familiar with the old Traveler's Aid at that time - it was not a place for kids to be.''
The new building is designed for 15 families, but over the past year has had to handle much more than that.
Dove: ``Because of the need that we've been seeing we would have to cram six or seven or eight people in one room because we didn't have enough to spread them out to two rooms. So ideally it's meant for 15 families, however over the past year our numbers have been way more than that.''
Hummel: ``How many did you have here last night?''
Dove: ``We had 18 here last night. And have had 18 here since last year this time.''
Hummel: ``What's the most you've had?''
Dove: ``Nineteen. And at that point it became a danger issue.''
Hummel: ``Nineteen families?''
Dove: ``Nineteen families.''
Hummel: ``Which translates to how many people?''
Dove: ``Which is about 70 people at that time.''
Hummel: ``Wow, for a building that's designed for how many?''
Dove: ``About 45.''
And that's meant this room, which doubles as both a dining room and a meeting room during the day, is now a bedroom at night. Same with the computer room just down the hall. The air mattress pushed off to the side during the day.
At times the Crossroads staff has had to put up late-arriving families for a night in the family overflow room of the main building at 160 Broad Street - where the lights remain on 24 hours a day, making sleep even more difficult.''
Dove: ``When are presented with: you are going to be sleeping on a floor in a conference room with your baby, or a floor in the kitchen - during the day people eat there, and at night it's transformed into a living room. And they say, it's better than me sleeping outside, then you know people absolutely have no other options.''
Nolan: ``People end up living with families and friends after they lose their permanent housing.
And so they drift for awhile and then they end up homeless. So when you think about it, it does make sense.''
Hummel: ``And is the end of the extended federal unemployment benefits is that having an effect?''
Nolan: ``That has had an effect. We've seen people that have timed out of benefits for the first time - they have absolutely no source of income.''
Hummel: ``You know the economy tanked in 2008, really bad in 2009, here we are in 2012, why now?''
Dove: ``Again I think it goes back to that delayed effect, it goes back to people hanging on until the very last moment . Those people who are fortunate to have friends and families who can be of assistance - whether it be financial assistance, whether it be a room in a house, a couch, air mattress, on the floor for months.
People have exhausted all of their benefits: savings, 401ks they've exhausted it that. And now they're here.''
The increased numbers mean the staff here is in crisis mode much of the time.
Dove: ``Families would come here, we would be able to essentially inundate them with services.
Housing referrals, educational referrals, employment referrals, providing that those immediate needs so that they could figure out their next steps are. We had the time and the opportunities to really, really work with them, provide them with comprehensive background services and then ultimately place them into other shelters or permanent housing. However, as time has progressed, as the job market has declined, as the housing market has plummeted... we haven't been able to provide that same level of services because the numbers have dramatically increased and so at this time we feel that we're merely Band-Aiding.''
Dove grew up in Providence, the daughter of a minister - and this being Rhode Island - at times has met people showing up at the family center who she knows.
Dove: ``I've had people here that I've been to school with.''
Hummel: ``What's that like?''
Dove: ``Difficult. Difficult. And honestly - awkward. Because I'm somewhat removed from day- to-day it was easier for me escape, it was easier for me to stay in my office, or manipulate events of a meeting, so it's challenging.''
And while most families are here for a relatively short time, for others it's been much longer as they try to get back on their feet.
Dove: ``We had a family come in the beginning of September of 2011; they did not leave here until May. It's surreal because this mom had three teenage daughters. They spent their entire academic year in a shelter. One of them was graduating, going to college, so that to me that has been one of the most surreal examples.
I cannot imaging spending 30 days, 60 days here, let alone an entire academic year. Prom, they were getting dressed for prom here. We have to be sensitive to them (teenagers) and help them through that process. Because oftentimes, they tend to act out they tend to place lots of blame on the parents.''
Hummel: ``And the parents feel guilty enough.''
Dove: ``The parents felt guilty, they would be better off without me. The stories I could tell.
Parents saying `I can't do this, I can't put my kids through this.' And the self-blame and the blame of the children.''
Nolan says you might be surprised who the homeless in Rhode Island are.
Nolan: ``As well-known as Crossroads is, most people don't have a clue what we do.''
Hummel: ``What, they see people hanging out. Is that what it is?''
Nolan: ``The chronically homeless are the most visible aspect of homelessness.''
Hummel: ``And is that your main clientele?''
Nolan: ``No, not at all. The vast majority of people who are homeless - in our case 70 percent of the homeless - are homeless once in their lives, it's situational, all of these families we're seeing. Most of the families are brand new to homelessness. They've never been homeless - and what they need is four or five months to stabilize their lives, and then they're never homeless again.''
Dove: ``Over the last year we've also seen a shift in who we're seeing, so previously it was a lot of single heads of household coming here for serves. Over the last year, probably year and a half we've been seeing a lot more two-parent intact families coming here.''
Nolan: ``The pressure they have been under, with a 124 percent increase in the number of people, we are staffed to deal with 15 families. So not only do we have the facility, but we have a staff to deal with 15 families. They are right now dealing with 40 families and they do it with smiles and songs and love in their hearts; it's just an amazing thing to watch that staff work, I am so moved by their dedication. And Cicley is the leader of that. It's remarkable. Every day I think: they're going to come in and quit today. They've got to!''
Dove: ``Because the population is so transient we don't always get to see the effects or our work, as we like to say. And that's the analogy I absolutely....
Hummel: ``It's kind of like a minister, right?''
Dove: ``Absolutely, we are the seed planters - we might not ever get to see that harvest but we need to know that we have been responsible for planting the seeds that hopefully will create a harvest. And that will change generations to come.''
In Providence, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.