The face of poverty

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Poverty has tens of thousands of faces in Rhode Island. It's the face of 23 year old Maureen George, a resident of the Crossroads homeless shelter. "My mom died when I was 14 and I was living with family members," she says. "I used to be in state care and after state care there was nowhere to go so I came here."

It's the face of Janice Briggs who feeds her family from the Jonnycake food pantry in Peacedale and is on the path to foreclosure. "Very very hard, " she says fighting off tears. "I mean I owe everybody and their brother. It's like I can't even pay my full bills every month.

And it's the face of Tammy Morrison, who with the help of Amos House, has kicked an addiction to heroin and crack cocaine. "Amos House helped me in some moments of real despair," says Morrison. "At the end of my active drug addiction I was suicidal had no hope. I was at the end."

Over the last three years, 28,000 Rhode Islanders have joined the ranks of those living at or below the federal poverty level. That number is now 133,000 or roughly one in eight Rhode Islanders. But the true number of poor people may be much higher. The Poverty Institute, a social service think tank, calculates the cost of living in Rhode Island two or three times higher than the federal poverty level. "The result," says the Poverty Institute's Rachel Flum, "is that there is an assumption that people are able to make ends meet with a lot less than they are. The federal poverty level right now for a family of three is $18,000 a year and almost no one can make ends meet on that level if they're receiving no income supports and no cash benefit transfers."

The crush of the newly impoverished has stressed out social service agencies to the max. Crossroads, the state's largest homeless shelter, served as many families by the end of July as it did in all of last year according to spokeswoman Karen Santilli. "We have a conference room that we've opened up and we put air mattresses on the floor and that's where they sleep," she says. "They're off the streets. They're safe but it's not a tenable situation and it can't continue," she adds.

The Rhode Island Community Food Bank also feels the strain. It's feeding 55,000 people a month, an increase of 45 percent from two years ago. Food Bank CEO Andrew Schiff says the current pace is unsustainable. "What we're all dedicated to doing is not turn people away but we also recognize that at least through emergency food people are not going to be able to get as much as they did," says Schiff. "If we were giving out three days' food in the past folks will get two days' worth of food."

Rhode Island's poverty is the result of three years of high unemployment the foreclosure crisis and an acute lack of affordable housing. Factories closing down have left low skilled workers like Jessie Feliciano without a job. "Times is rough. Times is hard," says Feliciano. "I search on the internet. I go to factories. I go in, sign applications but no call. It's hard. It's hard."

Feliciano is living at a family shelter in Pawtucket. He landed there after his unemployment benefits ran out and he couldn't afford rent. And federally subsidized housing - so called "section 8" - is not an option. It has a seven year waiting list and is no longer accepting applications according to Richard Godfrey, director of HousingWorks RI. "I've been working in affordable housing for almost 40 years," Godfrey explains. "It never has been as big a challenge as it is right now. I've never seen people in communities suffering as badly as they are right now."

The federal government is stepping up to the plate. The Obama administration has launched a $1.5 billion program to prevent homelessness and food stamp rules have been relaxed. But social service advocates say much more needs to be done if poverty is to be eradicated in the nation's smallest state.

EDITOR'S NOTE: On Thursday , December 9, WRNI in collaboration with the Rhode Island Foundation will host a community forum on the issue of poverty.

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