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The Valley Breeze: Homelessness on the rise as rents climb

Published on June 22, 2017

One city elementary school trying to help its 11 homeless families

By ETHAN SHOREY, Valley Breeze Managing Editor

PAWTUCKET – Three years ago, staff at Cunningham Elementary School knew of just one homeless family at the school. Last year, that number grew to five families. This year? Cunningham is home to students from 11 homeless families.

Elaine Cruz, outreach coordinator for the Pawtucket Child Opportunity Zone, or COZ, works out of an office that is jam-packed with donated food and other items for families in need. Cruz told The Breeze she’s never seen this many families in such a dire situation, and she believes the number of homeless families at one of the city’s two poorest schools is much higher than staff members even know.

“Some of our teachers don’t even know half of the students who are homeless,” she said. “We need a solution now for these families.”

Cruz said she’s tried her best to help the situation by finding shelters or cheap apartments for rent, but landlords now “want an arm and a leg” for those apartments. Families she works with are working long hours and making less than $10 an hour, said Cruz, nowhere near enough to pay for rents that are now exceeding $900 for more than one bedroom.

“The need is so great,” she said.

No other Pawtucket school has even close to as many homeless families as Cunningham has, said Cruz.

She said she’s been frustrated with a lack of response from the broader community on the needs of such families with school-age children.

Staff at Cunningham are trying to hold an online fundraiser to collect funds for a new food storage pod outside the school, but the GoFundMe campaign has received just one donation of $20 since June 2.

According to the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, a lack of adequate income and lack of affordable housing are the two greatest contributors to homelessness in Rhode Island. The state is one of the least affordable places to live. To afford a two-bedroom apartment in Rhode Island, a minimum wage earner must work 102 hours a week all year, according to the coalition.

Adrienne Marchetti, director of the Pawtucket Soup Kitchen, said she, too, is seeing a rise in homelessness. Three individuals or families have been sleeping in cars in the facility’s parking lot, she said.

“The rents are out of control, and the waiting lists for public housing are unrealistically long,” she said.

Some of the people coming for meals have tried partnering up with someone on renting an apartment to make it more affordable, said Marchetti, but the strategy never seems to end well, often resulting in all parties being homeless again.

“Something needs to change before the cold weather returns,” she said. “I fear to think what could happen.”

The subject of rising rents has been a hot one on the Pawtucket City Council, where Councilors Tim Rudd and Meghan Kallman are warning about the impact of bringing high-end developments to poorer areas of the city. Kallman and Rudd this month voted with their colleagues to approve a 10-year tax treaty for the Nulco Lofts on Beecher Street, but said further developments should have a mix of rent costs to avoid pricing people out of the area.

Cruz said many of the people she’s sending to area homeless shelters are coming back, complaining of long lines and poor conditions.

For a one-bedroom apartment, local rents are often between $650 and $850, said Cruz. For a two-bedroom unit, the rents climb to $900 or $1,000.

“It’s expensive out there, and we can complain and complain, but nothing’s going to change if we don’t do something about it,” Cruz said.

One homeless woman in the Cunningham Elementary School family became homeless after the refrigerator in her apartment stopped working, said Cruz. When she left to find somewhere to store her food, the landlord changed the lock and wouldn’t let her back in, keeping all of her family’s belongings.

Cruz said there was supposed to be a committee formed to study homelessness locally, but she was never asked to be part of it and hasn’t heard whether it’s making any progress.

Staff at Cunningham have gone above and beyond, running fundraisers to help people, often paying for them to stay in hotels when shelters are too full to accept them.

In one case, a family with a 5-year-old child and an 18-month-old child was found sleeping near a dumpster behind a local fast food restaurant near the school, said Cruz.

She said the problems with homelessness and hunger in the Cunningham community can often feel overwhelming.

“I can’t eat a full meal unless I know someone else is doing it,” she said.

Anyone who wishes to help local families in need can email Cruz at eclovlin88@gmail.com. Visit www.gofundme.com/heavenonwheels for the effort to raise funds for a storage pod.

Courtesy of The Valley Breeze