PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Advocates for the homeless and members of the clergy held an interfaith service at a tent city here May 9 to bring attention to the growing plight of homeless men, women and children in Rhode Island. They also appealed for increased state support for affordable housing and services.

The tent city was set up by homeless people under a bridge on Interstate 195 on the bank of the Providence River. “Homeless persons sleeping overnight under the bridge is due to the lack of shelter services available,” said Catherine Rhodes of People to End Homelessness.

While some of the city’s emergency shelters were open during the winter, several have since closed. Meanwhile the number of homeless people has not decreased.

The Rev. John Holt, executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, urged participants to contact Gov. Don Carcieri and the Legislature concerning several housing bills in the Statehouse, including one that would allocate up to $7.5 million for building affordable housing units. Some of the bills can be found at www.rihomeless.com and at www.uwri.org.

Other participating clergy included Methodist ministers Duane Clinker and John Fitzelle-Jones, Rabbi Alan Flam, and Father James Ruggieri of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, along with members of the United Church of Christ’s Beneficent Church.

Clinker and Fitzelle-Jones were among four clergy arrested at the Statehouse a few years ago when then-Gov. Lincoln Almond threatened to freeze $5 million allocated to the Neighborhood Opportunity Program to build affordable housing units. The funding has since been restored.

Ron Messier, a member of People to End Homelessness and a homeless person himself, stressed that many shelter residents are working people, and that working people deserve to come to a place they call home.

Forty percent of all renters in Rhode Island spend more than one-third of their income on rent, according to researchers. A worker earning the minimum wage must put in almost 125 hours a week in order to comfortably afford the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment, about $1,000 per month.

Rhode Island grew by 10,000 households during 2001-2003, yet added only 7,800 new homes during this same period.

Eric Hirsch, sociology professor at Providence College, recalled that during the 1970s homelessness was almost nonexistent. He cited several factors leading to its increase, including the cut in federal housing during the Reagan administration and today’s escalating rents.

Hirsch said that under the Neighborhood Opportunities Program, 600 units have been built which make housing affordable for persons on Supplemental Security Income or who earn the minimum wage. He said that the $7.5 million housing advocates are asking for amounts to just one-half of 1 percent of the state’s budget.

A follow-up march of the homeless and their supporters to the Statehouse took place on May 15.

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