December 1, 2014

A Home of One’s Own

by Hannah Cole '16

Hannah is a coordinator of Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE). She participates in nighttime outreach walks once a week with the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project.

“I’ve got housing,” were the first words out of Mike’s mouth when I met him on outreach this September.

I was floored by the news. I had seen him nearly every week for the past year on my nighttime outreach walks on the South Side. He was chronically homeless, and he had often told me that he was too old to keep living on the streets.

A charismatic man with a white beard and a tough demeanor, Mike was a leader in the homeless community. He usually filled my outreach team in on the events of the week, describing the fights, overdoses and sexual assaults that are regular fixtures in the lives of the homeless. Often, he mediated between individuals when conflicts flared, serving as a peacemaker for the community.

When Mike told me that he was moving to a housing unit in Central Falls, he helped to restore my faith in the service sector. Housing promotes individuals’ mental health, physical health, safety and sobriety. In fact, numerous studies have shown that providing people with housing first saves states money in the long run because of the expensive services that the homeless require. Despite this research, few homeless individuals I know have been offered this transformative opportunity.

Mike’s story inspires me to push forward with renewed energy in my outreach and advocacy work with HOPE. Even when housing seems like a distant vision, surrounded by miles of red tape, it can become a reality when outreach workers collaborate with caseworkers and the state channels enough funding to support its neediest citizens.

I was not the person to put Mike on the housing list. Nor can I know whether my outreach visits changed his life, whether the blankets I gave him were stolen or whether my company offered him any consolation. My advocacy work through HOPE is slow and painstaking, and it is unlikely that my canvassing efforts affected him directly.

Yet I am proud to be a part of the effort to lift individuals like Mike off the street, into the profound security of a home. Through  our relationship, I have deepened my understanding of homelessness in Rhode Island, changing an abstract notion to a tangible reality. My service work strengthens my solidarity with the homeless, driving my passion to transform their experience for the better.

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