Understanding Homelessness in Rhode Island:Dr. Eric Hirsch Discusses His Recent Research
by Alexandra Huzyk ’20
Dr. Eric Hirsch, professor of sociology at Providence College, has dedicated his life’s work to the fight for social justice, particularly, acting as an advocate for the homeless.
“When I was at the University of Chicago and taught at Columbia…I did a lot of community organizing and mainly tenant organizing,” said Hirsch. “When I got to Rhode Island, I looked around for similar organizations and there weren’t any. Which raises an interesting question, which is: why are there so few tenant organizations?”
Hirsch explained that according to the most recent data, collected in 2017, there were between 4,000 and 5,000 homeless people identified in the state of Rhode Island.
This number includes every individual who has stayed at least one night in a homeless shelter. However, of this group, about 1,000 people have been homeless for an extended period of time.
“I still think it’s one of the worst things in our society that we allow homelessness to continue, when we know how to end it,” said Hirsch, who believes that ending homelessness is a relatively easy and possible reality.
The solution, according to Hirsch, is to place people in apartments. “What we’ve shown through evaluative research, is that if you put people into apartments and surround them with supportive services,” for disabilities, substance abuse, and mental health, “then we can solve long-term homelessness.”
This conclusion has developed over a period of time, stemming from an initial approach called ‘Housing First.’
This method began in the 1980s and extended into the early 1990s, promoting the building of shelters for the homeless. In these shelters, it is typical that people have no privacy and are often surrounded by people struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues.
After the ‘Housing First’ approach, transitional housing programs were put into place to help transition people from living in shelters to permanent housing. Hirsch said, “We ultimately found that we couldn’t find permanent housing at the end of the two-year program.”
“The state of Rhode Island does very little to provide units, rental subsidies, and support services, unlike other states,” said Hirsch. The Rhode Island government allots $15 per person, which totals an approximate budget of $15,000,000 to provide these necessary resources. In comparison, Connecticut and Massachusetts provide $80 and $100 per capita, respectively.
He cited this lack of funding and the government’s focus on creating tax cuts for the wealthy, as well as trillions of dollars of military spending, as delaying the implementation of resources that can help to end homelessness.
“Our problem is much smaller than other states, but we don’t have the political will to solve it,” explained Hirsch. “The legislature, general assembly, and governor have to hear from their constituents.”
As for public awareness, Hirsch said, “I think there are tons of rationalizations that people have to not feel guilty about poverty and homelessness.”
He said that the most common arguments, that homelessness is attributed to laziness or severe incurable mental illness, are the furthest explanations from the truth. Oftentimes, homelessness is a result of an unfortunate series of catastrophic events occurring in a person’s life.
“I try to make sure people’s stories get out there so that the public can understand the reality of the situation and push for the housing programs that we need.”
Hirsch is currently on sabbatical and has been working to close Harrington Hall Men’s Shelter, a homeless shelter located in Warwick, Rhode Island.
“The shelter is not an acceptable place for people to live,” Hirsch stated. “We certainly have the resources to prevent people from sleeping in a place like this night after night, so why not use the money that keeps the Hall open for rental subsidies and apartments?”
Hirsch further explained that it is cost-efficient to create apartments, as it reduces the staffing costs in shelters and the necessity of emergency medical services.
Besides efforts to transition the men living in Harrington Hall into permanent residences, Hirsch has also been working to create a law that will ban landlords’ discrimination on the basis of income.
For students who wish to become involved in the fight to end homelessness, Hirsch said that he can help connect students with the RI Coalition for The Homeless or a policy committee named The Housing and Homelessness Policy group.