Caitlin Frumerie is the Executive Director of the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness. In the organization’s recent State of Homelessness address, Frumerie called the situation a “dumpster fire.” Frumerie shared some highlights from their presentation in a conversation with morning host Luis Hernandez.

Click here to see a recording or slides from the coalition’s recent address on the state of homelessness in Rhode Island, released on Nov. 14.

Luis Hernandez: So Caitlin, tell me about your work with the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness.

Caitlin Frumerie: So I have been there just under five years, but the organization has been an operation since 1988. And I wish I could say that the work has gotten kind of easier and smaller over time. But really, it's growing, between the COVID and the nature of the housing crisis in the state. We're really seeing unsheltered homelessness, and just homelessness at large, just increasing dramatically. And our organization does a lot of work to combat that. We are at the State House lobbying and supporting for more resources and more attention. We operate a hotline 365 days a year. So if you and your family were not sure where you were going to sleep tonight, you might reach out to that number to get help or be diverted from homelessness. We also do a lot of data tracking and reporting to really understand how the issue's going, and some services. So really, we do a lot that it's all in pursuit of ending homelessness, and really in cooperation with all of the service providers and community members around the state who believe like we do that, you know, nobody, no Rhode  Islander should be homeless.

Hernandez: So on Nov. 14, you gave the coalition's annual State of Homelessness address. This is where you shared the latest data on homelessness throughout the state. What are the big takeaways from this year's report?

Frumerie: I think the biggest takeaway is just how bad homelessness has gotten, particularly those living outside. It's just increased dramatically, and I think we can all understand why that is. Cost of housing has risen drastically. We're all seeing it, at kind of every income level and housing type. And we're not seeing wages rise. And in fact, in our system, we're seeing wages fall. So there's really this mismatch both of supply and demand, but also in what you have money coming in and what you have potentially going out. So people just don't have enough money to afford an apartment, let alone their basic needs, like food, a roof, you know, heating, all of that.

Hernandez: Who is most at risk of experiencing homelessness?

Frumerie: So what it really comes down to is persons who are extremely low income. So there's a lot of risk factors within that. We can talk about youth aged 18 to 25, who are maybe discharging from the foster care system, or represent themselves as part of the LGBTQ population. So there's a risk there, not only of homelessness, but of really victimization, of crimes, trafficking, all sorts of things, certainly domestic violence … But you also see a large number of individuals who have disabilities or other health issues. And the problem with that is homelessness is already traumatic, right? Like living in your car, living in a shelter, bunk beds with a bunch of other people in one big room. I mean, none of those are pleasant experiences. Like shelters are a necessity, but people want housing. So when you have someone that may have a chronic condition, COPD, some other medical issue, it just compounds their health. And on average, we see that people experiencing homelessness have a lifespan that's 20 years shorter than the general population. So we usually see them passing away 45 years to 55 years of age, because of this trauma of homelessness and the other health issues that it really brings about.

Hernandez: You know, we're heading into the colder months, of course, and I'm wondering, what are some of the biggest challenges, you know, for people experiencing homelessness? Is the state equipped to support people during this time of year?

Frumerie: I mean, we don't have enough beds, right. So we have, you know, as of the last two weeks, 500 people living outside, and that includes families with children, the state has tried really hard to bring on resources and bring on beds and other resources. But we're still not where we need to be to get everybody inside. And then I'm also worried about, okay, let's get through the winter -- but when we look at the spring and the summer, we need housing for these individuals, right? Like nobody wants to be in a shelter. But really I'm very, very nervous and concerned as we come into this winter, and we do a memorial every year to honor those that have passed. And that was in the middle of October, and I had over 40 names of people who had passed away from homelessness in the last year. And that's the highest I've ever seen it. And I'm afraid for next year's memorial that it's going to be more, just because it's so many more people. And one thing I'll say, related to the issue of bringing on more shelters and beds, one of the challenges we're finding is there's a little bit of NIMBYism when it comes to affordable housing and or crisis housing shelters. And, you know, I really need Rhode Islanders that are concerned about this issue to get involved in their local community, because that's how we're able to ensure that every city and town in Rhode Island doesn't have homelessness. Because you should be able to have housing or supports in your community. So that's a big one.

Hernandez: I mean, has the state made any progress on this issue? They've seen the numbers go up.

Frumerie: You know, they've released requests for proposals for projects, they've released funding. And when we look at the budget last year, there was a significant investment in affordable housing. I mean, I think the advocates, we want it closer to 500 million. I think it's 250, 250 million. So it's not what we have asked for, but it's still something. But until every person is, you know, indoors and not at risk of dying outside, it's never enough. But I do think, and I want to highlight that it's got to be in partnership with the cities and towns, and with the communities. Because if the state's willing to invest in, let's say, pallet shelters in Cranston but the Cranston community isn't willing to support that, you know, there's tension there. So it's got to be a partnership between all of us. But yes, everybody should be doing more, and we need to do more, because our Rhode Islanders deserve more.

Hernandez: Organizations like yours continue to do the work they're doing. But if the state isn't offering more support, but also the fact that if housing just doesn't go down, and wages don't go up, this problem continues. What more can an organization like yours do?

Frumerie: I mean, we're headed to a dire place. You know, you look at California, the West Coast, some of these other communities that have had this unsheltered crisis, it just keeps growing, and it gets worse and worse. And it really warrants, you know, an emergency declaration. Like that's, that's where we're headed. That's where this is going. And as an organization, I really believe that it's about coming together and holding people accountable and advocating for solutions that work, whether that's at the statehouse, whether that's within our local communities. But it's really about raising awareness, which is why I'm so glad that you guys are covering this today, because it helps educate people. And what's really a situation where we all need to get involved, because being on that planning committee in your local city or town is going to be the thing that might make the difference about that affordable housing project coming to your community. And also just dispelling the rumors. I think a lot of people think of people experiencing homelessness as kind of the chronically homeless older white male. And that's just not it. You know, we have families, we have children under the age of five, we have children under the age of one living in cars. It's not who you think of it being. It's, it's everybody, it's your sister, it's your neighbor, it's, you know, anybody could find themselves in an economic situation where they couldn't afford the astronomical cost of housing. And so it's that kind of understanding and indignation, to do something about it. But really, it's, you know, more resources, more support and just allowing these projects to exist in these local communities.