Homeless advocates on Thursday served up lunch at the State House at a new weekly soup kitchen aimed at forcing legislators to confront the state’s homeless problem.
Newly released statistics show the number of those who experienced homelessness in Rhode Island at some point in 2011 was 4,410, about the same as the year before. But advocates say more people than ever are struggling to meet basic needs like food and shelter.
George Schiller, an unemployed construction worker who was homeless for years before moving in to an affordable unit a few months ago, stopped by for the bag lunch of peanut butter and jelly, chips and fruit. He said with the soup kitchen taking place in the Rotunda, lawmakers won’t be able to ignore homelessness.
“They know it’s a problem, but they shut their eyes to it,” he said. “If they see 300 or 400 people coming here, they won’t be able to do that anymore.”
Marty Rebman, who was homeless for a year before securing a spot at a Providence shelter, also got a meal.
“It’s exhausting being on the street,” she said. “You’re constantly wondering how you’re going to eat, where you’re going to sleep.”
In the course of an hour, the soup kitchen served about 120 meals, according to Karen Jeffreys of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, which helped organize the event.
John Joyce of the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project, another organizer, said the soup kitchen – which is scheduled to take place every Wednesday from now on – serves two missions.
“The No. 1 reason is that there is a need. No. 2, we want to put a face on the people in Rhode Island who don’t have homes and who are hungry.”
Lawmakers who observed the soup kitchen said it’s a helpful reminder of a pressing issue.
“It’s effective,” said Rep. Frank Ferri, D-Warwick, noting that lobbyists have long used their presence at the Statehouse to influence lawmakers. “When a group comes here it’s harder to ignore them.”
“I don’t think people in this building know how bad it is out there,” said Sen. John Tassoni, D-Smithfield.
The coalition and other groups are pushing for a dedicated funding stream for affordable housing, a homeless “Bill of Rights” and legislation that gives additional protections to homeowners and tenants faced with foreclosure. They also support a $25 million housing bond that Gov. Lincoln Chafee has proposed in his budget for the coming fiscal year.