Housing is a Human Right: A brief history of housing & how you can help end homelessness

The Thomas Wilbur Homestead. (Photo: House of Hope CDC)

In 1937, the federal government entered the world of public housing when FDR signed the Wagner-Steagall Housing Act into law. The law established the US Housing Authority, which created a federally funded public housing program that provided $500 million in loans for low-cost housing projects across the US to help house America’s most financially poor. In 1949, a subsequent housing act was passed to help address the decline of urban housing. 1965 ushered in the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Act, which initiated a leasing housing program that made privately owned housing available to lowincome families. And then came Nixon and the ‘70s, and then came Reagan, and then came Clinton – three decades of congressional disinterest (arguably disdain) for federal public housing and slashed HUD budgets that culminated in the Faircloth Amendment.


An amendment to the housing act of 1937, the Faircloth Amendment states “a public housing agency may not use any of the amounts allocated for the agency from the Capital Fund or Operating Fund for the purpose of constructing any public housing unit, if such construction would result in a net increase from the number of public housing units owned, assisted, or operated by the public housing agency on October 1, 1999, including any public housing units demolished as part of any revitalization effort.” Simply put, the Faircloth Amendment restricts the number of units a public housing authority can own and operate to their 1999 numbers, which in effect halts the construction of new public housing. The federal government stepped away from public housing by slashing funds and capping new development and, when they did, no state or local infrastructure was in place to fill the void.

Fast forward to 2023. In June, the RI Coalition to End Homelessness released its 2023 Point In Time (PIT) survey. PIT surveys are conducted annually and provide an estimate of how many people in Rhode Island are experiencing homelessness on any given night. This year’s survey was conducted over a two-week period, January 25 through February 1, and reported the following: 1,810 individuals were experiencing homelessness, a 15% increase from 2022 and approximately 65% increase since 2020. Among these 1,810 individuals, 629 were chronically homeless (a 26.5% increase from 2022), 100 identified as veterans, and 81 were young adults.

The Low and Moderate Income Housing Act enacted in 1991 required 10% of the housing supply in every RI municipality be affordable to low- and moderate-income households, yet in 2020, only six out of 39 municipalities met that requirement. Wage stagnation and rising cost of living – affordable housing in particular – are two major drivers of homelessness.

“We have a shortage of affordable housing in the state,” says Matt Giebert, fund development manager for House of Hope. “There are folks that have various different disabilities whether that’s a physical disability or a mental health issue. There are folks with substance use issues. All of which contribute in some degree, but the rate to afford an apartment in the state is far higher than the minimum wage. A lot of people can easily fall into experiencing homelessness with a single missed paycheck. The housing crisis, I would say, is the primary driver behind increased homelessness.”

In June 2022, the state legislature approved $10 million for a new pilot program to build mixed-income public housing, making Rhode Island among a handful of states and local governments entering the world of public housing, a land historically dominated by the federal government. Among several goals, the primary goal of the pilot program is to use State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds available through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 to support the creation of new public housing units. With leadership from house speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, Rhode Island is stepping up and addressing homelessness with a new, state-funded initiative to meet the needs of its community and the growing need of its population; much like House of Hope does and has done since 1989.

“One of the key tenets of our mission is housing is a human right. We have a right to safe and secure housing,” says Giebert. “I was talking to one of our case managers in housing and they said quite often when someone moves in, [no one] sees them for the first three days because they are asleep, they are asleep because they can finally relax and breathe.”

House of Hope operates in two main spheres: street-level outreach and housing. Their outreach team visits encampments and other areas early in the morning and later in the evening and provides people experiencing homelessness with access to showers, physicians, haircuts, and assistance accessing, understanding, and completing certain paperwork, such as how to get a new birth certificate or how to navigate online housing portals. Through partnerships and buildings that they own, House of Hope also offers a combination of transitional and permanent supportive housing. In transitional housing, people have the chance to rest, stabilize, think clearly, and develop a path forward. Permanent supportive housing provides apartments for people who’ve faced significant life challenges and ended up unhoused. With few exceptions, tenants typically pay 30% of their income on rent, usually from SSI or SSDI. Some stay for months, some years, some forever, and while there, they are supported by onsite case managers and social workers.

House of Hope is currently in negotiations with the state on the construction of rapidly deployable shelters, commonly referred to as pallet shelters – small, temporary, private shelters that can be heated or cooled and include a lock on the door.

“They are a space where people can leave their belongings, so they can go to different appointments. It addresses a lot of the concerns people have with congregate shelters. They aren’t meant to be permanent, they are meant to be a place where somebody can go to get a chance to rest and recover, to put parts of their life back together, and be able to move on.”

According to the RI Coalition to End Homelessness, the need for shelter beds this winter is expected to rise 33%. Giebert says the best way to help is to contact your representatives and tell them people experiencing homelessness is a significant issue, that you are concerned, and to ask them, “Can I count on you for more affordable housing?” And beyond that, give.

“We all have challenges in life. Some of us are fortunate and the challenges are easier to overcome. For others, they are not. My personal thought is we have an obligation to lift up those less fortunate in our communities.”

To financially support House of Hope’s programs visit thehouseofhopecdc.org. In addition to monetary donations, you may donate gift cards, tents, bedding, hygiene products, first aid supplies, laundry items, and non-perishables. For more information, contact Matt Giebert at (401) 463-3324 x234.