The number of people experiencing homelessness during Rhode Island’s coldest month has skyrocketed, according to newly released statewide data. 

Every year, the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness counts the number of people experiencing homelessness on a single night at the end of January. This year, on Jan. 25, the count was 1,810 people, including those sleeping outside as well as those in shelters. 

The number of people sleeping outside was 334. That’s up from 370% from five years ago, the year prior to the pandemic. The coalition, alongside other non-profit leaders and state housing secretary Stefan Pryor, announced the new numbers in a press conference on June 6. The coalition’s executive director, Caitlin Frumerie, pointed towards rising housing costs as a driver of homelessness. 

“The pandemic has certainly had an impact on both housing costs and wages and they just continue to not meet,” Frumerie said. “What that results in is more people facing homelessness and not able to afford a place to stay.”

The number of people who have housing vouchers but can’t find a home has increased dramatically over the past year. Although the general rate of homelessness is up by 15% compared to 2022, the number of people possessing vouchers but sleeping outside or in shelters has more than doubled, rising from 90 people to 202 people. 

Diamond Madsen is a formerly homeless woman who is now a housing activist. At the press conference announcing the new numbers, she said she got off the streets eight years ago thanks to a housing voucher program. 

“It's like Willy Wonka with a golden ticket. That's what these are. They're Willy Wonka vouchers. They change so much of your life,” Madsen said.

But like golden tickets, vouchers are hard to come by. And, Madsen said, it now takes longer and is more difficult to get housing in Rhode Island, even with a voucher.

More than a tenth of the people experiencing homelessness during the Point-in-Time count have vouchers that can pay for apartments, but have not been able to find a place to live. 

As homelessness has continued to rise, organizations like Reclaim Rhode Island have been advocating for bills in the state legislature that would address the cost of housing, including a budget measure that would create a $50 million statewide revolving fund to build more mixed-income affordable housing. But it could be years before that housing is built and welcoming tenants.