From Jobless to Homeless in Rhode Island

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Douglas Edward Coates is polite, soft spoken, and articulate. He looks like a typical 29-year-old professional in his black wool coat and wire-rimmed glasses, his sandy hair and goatee neatly cropped. If I'd met him under any other circumstances, I could not have guessed that he'd been living in a homeless shelter for three months.

Just weeks before Christmas last year, the owner of a Dunkin' Donuts franchise where Doug worked as supervisor announced the shop was going out of business. The entire staff got laid off for the holidays. "I was upset and a little panicky," Doug tells me as we're chatting in the kitchen of Harrington Hall homeless shelter.

The anxiety worsened when Doug learned that he would be ineligible for unemployment. He's unsure why the unemployment office decided he couldn't collect benefits, but muses that perhaps it was because his boss went bankrupt or failed to register the proper paperwork.

Doug began putting in applications for any service-related job opening in the area. The hunt turned up a couple of offers, but only for overnight work, which he couldn't accept. His longtime girlfriend, Amy, with whom he lived and had two young children, worked as a night shift baker at another Dunkin' Donuts. Doug and Amy traded off parenting duties when he worked days and she worked nights, so until he received a day shift offer, the couple thought they'd have to live off her $15/hour paycheck. Then six months ago, Amy lost her job too.

Three months ago, owner of the couple's rental house--Amy's father--decided Doug needed to move out. "It wasn't a moral ruling," Doug says. "He basically decided that I shouldn't be staying there if I'm not contributing financially to the household."

So now Doug lives in a homeless shelter and takes an hour-long bus ride twice a week to see his children.

Doug's parents don't live too far away, but their own tragic hardship makes them currently unable to assist their son. A stomach cancer that Doug's father thought he had beaten two years ago has recurred. Doug is not sure if his parents lost their health coverage because his father has only been working part-time since surviving the first bout with cancer, or if their insurance is simply not covering enough of the current treatment. Whatever the financial specifics, all Doug knows is that the medical bills required his parents sell their house and move into a tiny apartment.

Doug doesn't want to burden them with anything else under these circumstances, so keeps all their conversations upbeat. In my time with him, I get the sense that he doesn't even have to put on an act.

Some newly homeless people I've met during the Recession Roadtrip have expressed extreme stress, depression, exhaustion, or shame while adjusting to the harsh strains of the lifestyle, but Doug seems to be adapting well. He has made good friends at the shelter and accepts that life has hit an extraordinary snag exceeding his reparative capabilities under the current economic environment. He keeps faith that this situation is only temporary, and reminds me: "Things could always be worse. You can't be down all the time or you won't be able to get up and do anything."

Under Harrington Hall rules, Doug has to get up and out of the building no later than 7 am. For Doug, the hardest part of being homeless, mentally and physically, is having to take all his possessions with him. "It's rough carrying your whole life on your back in a backpack because everyone who sees you knows you're homeless," he explains.

Harrington doesn't serve food in the morning, so Doug rides his bike about three miles to have breakfast at Amos House, another shelter in downtown Providence. Then he heads to the library, where he usually spends a few hours on the Internet scanning new job ads and submitting applications. A couple of days a week Doug makes the hour bus ride to see his kids. All other days he makes rounds visiting businesses that request job seekers submit applications on-site. Then it's back to Harrington Hall for a hot dinner, a little TV with his new friends, followed by a safe night's sleep.

"I'm actually very impressed with this place," Doug says. "The drunks are loud until seven or eight until they go to sleep. As long as you get here before nine or ten, you can usually find a bed."

As Doug has found on a couple of occasions, those who arrive too late for a bed have one option: sleeping at the dining table. "It's not too bad," he says. "It's better than staying out on the street."

Harrington Hall has enough cots and double bunks to provide 88 beds, but more and more lately they've been exceeding that capacity. In fact, across the state of Rhode Island emergency shelters and transitional housing units are full, strained beyond capacity by a homeless population that has more than doubled in the past two years.

According to the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, 1,518 people in the state accessed emergency shelter and transitional programs in October, which evidences a 64 percent increase from the same month last year. A point-in-time one night count on October 29 documented a statewide deficit of 167 beds for the current homeless population, prompting the State Emergency Shelter Task Force to arrange 88 emergency beds for this winter. 

Karen Jeffreys, associate director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, terms the situation a "looming crisis," one larger than they were able to document with the point-in-time count. "Point-in-time methodology always undercounts those out on the streets. We can't find everyone to count them," she explains.

With cold weather setting in, those living outside will need somewhere to go, but the shelters are already over capacity. Jeffreys worries about what will happen when winter hits its coldest days: "I fear we'll have people dying of exposure."

The crisis mode prompted homeless activists, advocates, shelter workers, and non-profit leaders to mount a demonstration on the State House lawn last week. Homeless tents were pitched in time for Thanksgiving, and demonstrators spent all day Friday standing in the cold rain holding signs demanding Governor Carcieri's attention to the matter.

I received an email this morning from Jim Ryczek, director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless. He'd just talked to the governor's spokesperson, Amy Kempe, who confirmed the office had received the Coalition's written request for a meeting to discuss the bed shortages. Kempe couldn't say when the governor would be getting together with his scheduling staff to decide when, or if, he would have time to fulfill the request. 

"I think there's a real disconnect in the government," says Jean Johnson, executive director of the House of Hope Community Development Corporation, which manages Harrington Hall and an array of transitional housing and support services for the homeless. "Even though the state knows it has a high unemployment and foreclosure rate, they don't connect that with the greater numbers of homeless people and the need for more beds."

Of the increasing numbers of Rhode Islanders Jean Johnson has seen experiencing homelessness for the first time over the past year, she can't recall any who'd lost their own house to foreclosure. Significant numbers had abruptly lost housing after their rental property fell into foreclosure. In many cases, a "slumlord" continued collecting rent until bank seizure forced the tenants' eviction. Recent legal changes should prevent that from happening anymore, but many still struggle to come back from such a hit.

Jean says the biggest contributor to the growing homeless population is the lack of available jobs. "Many of those I'm seeing have lost a job when they were just barely hanging on anyway. They can't afford rent anymore, so they end up with us." In September, Rhode Island had a 12.9 percent unemployment rate, which makes it third-highest in the nation, behind Michigan and Nevada.

That 12.9 percent represents a mere statistic for most readers of this piece, but for the main subject of the story, Doug Coates, that 12.9 percent represents the burden of an intimately personal reality, a double-digit-plus-decimal-pointed percentage holding his life in uncomfortable stasis. "I just need to get a job and then everything will fall into place," Doug says towards the end of our conversation. He smiles and shrugs his shoulders, making it all sound so easy.

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Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer, and book editor who specializes in national security, terrorism, and war. She also writes for the food blog Feed The Masses. More

Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer and book editor based in Washington, D.C. She specializes in editing books about national security, terrorism, and war, but writes for a broad array of publications, including the popular frugalicious foodie blog Feed The Masses. She is working on a book based on her Recession Road Trip project for TheAtlantic.com.
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