From Jobless to Homeless in Rhode Island


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.

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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.

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