WEST WARWICK — With help from a Rhode Island Foundation grant, a community-driven initiative is underway to ensure those in West Warwick who need it have an affordable, supportive place to call home. 

Seven nonprofits from around the state were awarded $1.375 million in grants for the purpose of addressing disparities in access to behavioral health services. The West Warwick Health Equity Zone will use the $150,000 it receives to lead a planning initiative aimed at growing the supply of affordable housing in town.

“The people who are experiencing homelessness in West Warwick are from West Warwick,” said Susan Jacobsen, senior director of health equity initiatives for Thundermist Health Center, the backbone agency of the health equity zone. “They’re neighbors, they’re residents, and they want to stay in West Warwick.”

The money will go toward developing a pipeline of affordable, supportive housing for people in West Warwick who are experiencing homelessness or housing instability, especially those with behavioral health challenges, Cathy Schultz, former health equity zone manager and the vice president of Help the Homeless RI, said last week. 

Led by residents and several local organizations, the initiative follows the housing-first model, an approach that prioritizes providing those facing homelessness with permanent housing and then offers other supportive services.

“The goal is for permanent, supportive housing using a housing-first philosophy to hopefully get folks housed, get a roof over their heads, and then to integrate them into the community,” Schultz said. 

Nonprofit social service agencies Better Lives Rhode Island and Thrive Behavioral Health are working alongside the health equity zone to bring that vision to reality.  

The social services are “a key component for anybody being housed,” Schultz said. 

“A lot of people who experience homelessness experience serious behavioral health conditions, so they really need the supportive services, as well, to stay housed and to be fully integrated and part of the community,” Jacobsen added. 

Increasing access to medical care, behavioral health care and housing as a package, Jacobsen said, will “ensure that people who are most vulnerable have access to the appropriate level of care in the community.” 

“The important component of this whole project is the supportive housing piece… where people are able to align with case managers and make behavioral healthcare appointments in order to stay housed once we are able to get everybody housed,” said Wendy Boudreau, a community organizer for the health equity zone. “There’s a big need for that.”

Several years ago, West Warwick residents and organizations identified housing and transportation as issues locally. At that time there were some homeless encampments, Schultz recalled, however it wasn’t extreme.

But then in 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic caused people everywhere to lose their livelihoods, the problem was “exacerbated tremendously,” Schultz added.

“We started to see visible homelessness in the community,” she said.

In the fall of 2020, in response to the sudden spike in homelessness in West Warwick, the health equity zone established a healthy neighborhoods workgroup. 

“The goal of this workgroup is to functionally end homelessness,” Schultz said. “That doesn’t mean that there will never be any more homelessness — [the goal is] to create this pipeline to be able to get all of the three components that are absolutely necessary for somebody to be successful… you need the buildings for people to live in, you need the vouchers that make them affordable and, for people with behavioral health conditions, you need supportive services”

The initial task of the workgroup was to increase its community partnerships, Schultz said — the initiative has sought to strengthen partnerships with housing developers, the West Warwick Housing Authority and a range of health and human service providers.

With representatives from various organizations at the table, the workgroup quickly created an action plan, and Help the Homeless RI, a nonprofit that serves those experiencing homelessness, was able to secure funding to place people in hotels both last winter and again this winter.

The piece that’s still missing — what Schultz called the workgroup’s long-term goal — is a permanent housing development. 

In addition to helping fund a lead community-health worker, a position to be funded in part by the state Department of Health, the Rhode Island Foundation grant will support a planning process by the Women’s Development Corporation and Housing Opportunities Corporation, a nonprofit developer and manager of affordable housing, that will include consideration of finances and potential development sites. 

Frank Shea, the organization’s executive director, touted the effectiveness of the housing-first model.

“Putting a roof over people’s heads is one thing,” he said, “but to be able to then address their needs — particularly if you can do it in the community where they’re living, and particularly in the community where they’re from — that’s how you get to long-term success.”

Having all of these other community-based organizations on board to support “the folks who live in whatever we can produce” will be a big help, Shea added. 

“A lot of times, we’re essentially housing developers, we’ll go look at a site and then say, ‘OK, how are we going to provide the services?’” he said. “It’s so much better to do it this way — this is really a great model.”

Paula Hudson, executive director of Better Lives Rhode Island and a resident of West Warwick, is excited about the initiative. She said it’s “really encouraging” to see that, unlike in many other communities, there’s broad support from both the town and its residents. 

After all, the project at its core is about neighbors helping neighbors. 

“I see us as helping [provide] support systems for our neighbors and for our friends,” Hudson said, adding that she hopes in the future there’s no need to rush to get people into hotels as the cold weather arrives.

“I’m hoping that we can circumvent that,” she continued, “and that, together, we can advocate for our friends and neighbors, and be a model for the rest of the state.”

And the grant from the Rhode Island Foundation will go a long way toward making that happen, Schultz said. 

“Rhode Island Foundation funding the ability for the health equity zone to create this workgroup and this collaborative that is bottom-up, with the resident voice at all times leading the way, is what’s so important,” Schultz said. “I am so, so thankful for Rhode Island Foundation for really giving us the opportunity and supporting this framework.”

kgravelle@ricentral.com

 

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