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SOUTH KINGSTOWN â€“ Twenty-five years ago the homeless population in South County travelled from church to church in Wakefield, hoping for a warm meal, a warm bed and a warm welcome until the community found them a home at the Welcome House.
It all started in the fall of 1986 while Ted Seymour, a building contractor of Wickford was volunteering at Storehouse Meals at the Church of God in Wakefield when another volunteer approached him about a man who needed a place to stay. Seymour looked all over for a place the man could stay for the night, including the Rooming House, but everywhere was full to capacity. With no choice, Seymour paid for the manâ€™s room at Bob Bâ€™s Motel in Wickford. The long night revealed something to Seymour. There was no place for a homeless person to stay in South County.
At the same time, Seymour knew Reverend John Hall at Saint Augustineâ€™s in Kingston was housing a homeless man at the church. The time proved ripe for action just as a national movement sparked in Washington DC to address the countryâ€™s growing homeless population and turn government buildings into temporary shelters.
â€śThere was a lot of emphasis in that time for things going in other poor countries. I thought we should do something here,â€ť Seymour said.
From the Church of the Ascension in Wakefield, Seymour, a pastoral assistant at the time, began to spread the word of the need of a homeless shelter and from there spurred South Countyâ€™s first temporary shelter program lead by community volunteers.
From the crisp fall months to the baron winter time, those looking for a place to stay travelled between six churches alternating each night, including Church of the Ascension, Kingston Congregational, Saint Augustineâ€™s, Saint Francis of Assisi, the Peace Dale Congregational Church and the VFW Hall.
Each night at 5 p.m. volunteers, who stayed the night, would bring in a pot luck dinner along with cots donated by the state to whichever church hosted the shelter and the homeless could expect a bed, a meal and a welcome. Initially only about three to four people would stay at the shelter, but as the shelterâ€™s reputation grew, so did its population and the volunteer shelter hired a part-time executive director Marianna Bristol to coordinate the program.
â€śA range of people stayed with different situations. Some worked. Some families that had kids went to school,â€ť Seymour said. â€śIt got crazy. The homeless people knew our schedule better than we did.â€ť
As the shelter grew, the volunteers soon realized its one challenge. The homeless did not know when the next night of shelter would be. They needed a permanent location.
â€śWe were fighting the perception that there were no homeless people in South County. That was proven wrong. We do have homeless people in this area. We thought we had a responsibility to act on it,â€ť Seymour said.
In the spring of 1988, Seymour and the other volunteers found the building at 8 North Road on the market for $250,000. With a $40,000 grant from the town of South Kingstown and another $50,000 from the Davisville Credit Union, the shelter volunteers were able to purchase the building. For the next three summer months, the volunteers and the homeless people renovated the building with the help of Arnold Lumber and Wickford Lumbar.
Just before Christmas in the fall of 1988, South Countyâ€™s first full time shelter, the Welcome House opened.
As the Welcome House grew, it set up some perimeters.
â€śThe rule of the homeless shelter was a person was not supposed to be there forever, but sometimes there was nothing else,â€ť Seymour said.
With the difficulty to progress from homelessness to employment and housing in mind, Welcome House purchased four buildings in Peace Dale for transitional housing, where rent would be provided.
â€śThe idea was to move people from homelessness to a transitional situation. It gave them stability,â€ť Seymour said. â€śThe concept was not just about providing one night shelter, but to allow people to move out of that situation. We tried to discourage people from staying for more than 30 days. We werenâ€™t trying to be a permanent solution, but as time went on we relaxed those rules. It wasnâ€™t realistic for some to move into an apartment in 30 days and get a job.â€ť
At that time, Seymour, who worked in the building business, was approached by the Providence Habitat for Humanity to start the South County Habitat for Humanity, which helped renovate the four transitional houses.
In 1997, Linda Barden, co-founder of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless and chair on the Women and Welfare Committee came on as Executive Director and took the Welcome House in a new direction, securing federal, local and state grants and grabbing the attention of state homeless advocates.
With her nearly 28 years of experience working with the homeless population, Barden was able to increase Welcome Houseâ€™s accountability as a nonprofit for donations and secured funding from the towns of South Kingstown and Narragansett.
â€śWe were successful here at Welcome House in breaking down the verbiage and explaining in black and white English the reason and reality of homelessness,â€ť Barden said.
A former homeless person herself, Barden carried more weight in educating the community about homeless issues.
Fifteen years after Barden came on board, Welcome House now includes 10 family units for transitional housing, two threshold units or permanent housing for the mentally disabled and two units which hold four single women and three single men in supported transitional housing. Last year, Welcome House went further by purchasing five Section 8 houses, where people will have supported permanent housing at 30 percent of their income and Welcome House is will not have to bear the burden of other costs.
Although Barden helped bring the homeless shelter to a new level, she wished after 15 years she was in another field.
â€śI wish we could have ended this whole issue years ago,â€ť Barden said.
While funding has decreased for homeless shelters from $7.5 million in the middle of the last decade for the Neighborhood Opportunities Program to $1.5 million this year, shelter use has increased by 20 percent in the past two years, according to the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless.
To combat homelessness, two state lawmakers, Rep. Scott Slater (D-Providence) and Sen. John Tassoni (D-Smithfield) submitted legislation last week to provide $12.5 million in funding for the NOP, the funding agency for Rhode Island homeless shelters, in the next fiscal year. Those funds, under the legislation, would be disbursed by the NOP to support the family affordable housing program, the permanent supportive housing program, and the neighborhood revitalization program.
The bills also call for a bond issue to be placed on the November election ballot, seeking $75 million to provide funds to the Housing Resources Commission to be allocated to finance the Neighborhood Opportunities Program.
To raise awareness for homelessness in Rhode Island, the Welcome House will hold its 24th annual Walk for Shelter on April 22.