PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Thirty years ago it was unheard of for a family to turn up at a homeless shelter. But today - three years into the worst recession since the Great Depression - families are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population in Rhode Island.
Nine-year-old Nicoi Thomas, a sweet girl with a mass of curly brown hair, comes home excited about what she's learned at school.
"Today we did at music. We had to do those things where you have a stick and you have to hit the thing that makes music," she says.
She lives with her mother, Toni Talbot and sister, Gianni, in a 10 by 15 foot bedroom at the Rhode Island family shelter in Warwick. Their three mattresses take up all but a narrow strip of floor space. Ask Nicoi what she thinks of her situation and she'll tell you bluntly it's "horrible. You have to be with other people. And the other boy in here is mean. He pushed me over the couch yesterday."
Nicoi's family is typical of those showing up at family shelters around the state this Fall.
Her mother's been on welfare for several years. Unable to find a subsidized apartment, she gave up the cottage she used to rent in Burrillville when the heat went out and the landlord refused to fix it. That was a year ago. Since then the family of three has been staying at shelters and doubling up with friends.
Nicoi's mother, Toni Talbot, tries hard not to give into self pity.
"There's never a time where I feel like Why did this happen to me? I didn't deserve this,'" she says, "I can't stop and pout. I just have to be positive and pray and just have a positive outlook. Because if you're negative you just draw negative energy."
Statewide, the number of homeless families has grown by 13 percent over the past year. And that doesn't include those who are doubling up with friends and relatives, which could easily multiply the number according to experts.
Providence College sociology professor Eric Hirsch who keeps track of homeless statistics says the families share two things in common: extreme poverty and a disbelief that homelessness would ever happen to them.
"They put homeless people in kind of a separate category of humanity," says Hirsch. "There's a lot of stigma associated with it."
Stigma indeed. Even at the tender age of nine, Nicoi keeps her living arrangements
"Do your friends know you live here?", I asked. "No," she said.
"I don't want them to know."
"They think I live in a house," she goes on to say. "I just don't give them the address."
Dr. Ellen Bassuk, president of the National Center on Family Homelessness says Nicoi's feelings are perfectly normal.
"Most teenagers will not tell other kids that they're in a shelter," Bassuk says. "It's too stigmatized and embarrassing. They keep it a secret. And their lives are really disrupted because you can't bring kids home. There's no place to do your homework. You can't do the usual stuff kids do. And it feels really bad. I haven't met a teenager who reacted that way, that it's just humiliating."
Nationwide, one and a half million -- or one in 50 children -- are homeless. The
National Center on Family Homelessness finds they're twice as likely to have health and emotional problems. They struggle in school -- with an average 16 percent lower proficiency rating in math and reading, and only about a quarter of them graduate from high school.
In most cases a series of events caused their parents to lose their homes, as in the case of Toni Talbot who split up with her daughters' father and was then hit by a truck, which made continuing work as a painter impossible.
"My back is shot," she says. "I have bulging discs and inflammation around the discs and I can't do that reaching and bending and lifting. It's a lot of physical work and I can't do it anymore."
Talbot is on several waiting lists for subsidized housing but until something comes through "home" is the Rhode Island family shelter headed by Janis Fisher.
"We're always in demand," says Fisher. We are always filled. Very rarely do we have an opening and if we have that opening it's usually taken within hours so we're turning away people every day."
Dave McCready runs the New Hope for Families Shelter in Pawtucket. He too has to turn away families every day.
"On a daily basis we get five to ten phone calls," says McCready. "A lot of times Crossroads is overflowing so they're calling us but we're totally full and we've been full for two years now."
Why is Rhode Island's homeless family population at a record high? It's a consequence of the recession says Jim Ryczek, director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless.
"We have a kind of perfect storm of economic situations that hare happening in the state," Ryzcek says. "We have high unemployment, high foreclosure rates and very low income levels for a lot of the folks that are the lowest income levels in the state. So those things all conspire to make family homelessness one of the biggest problems we're dealing with right now."
On top of that, rents remain high in Rhode Island. The average two bedroom apartment costs $1,120 a month an increase of 45 percent since 2001. Rents like that would nearly eat up the $1400 a month Toni Talbot and her children live on, sending her onto the streets and into a lifestyle that's taken her by surprise.
"Never, ever. Not in a million years," says Talbot of her situation. "If you had told me two years ago this was going to be me, I wouldn't have believed it but here we are."
While Congress has doled out $1.5 billion to help homeless families for things like subsidized housing and building affordable units, the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless' Jim Ryczek says the money comes a bit too late to help much this winter.
"There's no room in the family shelters," he says with a worried look on his face. "Moreover the families that are going to the family shelters are staying longer and longer because there's no way to get out of the family shelter. The costs are just so out of reach for these families and they can't get the jobs and the income needed in order to get out."
Toni Talbot has learned something from her brush with homelessness--- something she'd like to share with others. Once she's settled in a new apartment she hopes to go back to school to be a counselor to help others who find themselves in the same predicament.