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Homeless advocates, Occupy to join for rally

By Erika Niedowski

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Dec. 9 2011 1:52 p.m. MST

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Affordable housing and homeless advocates are joining with Occupy Providence to draw attention to the growing problem of homelessness and high foreclosure rates at a rally expected to end with tents being pitched at the Rhode Island Capitol.

Activists plan to march on Saturday afternoon from Burnside Park, where Occupy demonstrators have an encampment, to the Statehouse, where they will highlight a three-pronged legislative agenda. Their priorities include a dedicated funding stream for affordable housing programs, a bill allowing foreclosed homeowners to rent back their properties rather than be evicted and a homeless "Bill of Rights."

According to the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, about 4,400 people in the state experienced homelessness last year. A count in September found nearly 200 people sleeping on the streets, a finding advocates call conservative because the tally took place on a single night and many individuals may have been missed.

The numbers have climbed in part because of the state's sagging economy and chronic double-digit unemployment rate.

"The long and the short of it is we're in a dire situation right now, because we've lost so much funding for homeless prevention and affordable housing at a time when the number of people coming into the homeless system has risen year after year after year," said Jim Ryczek, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, one of the rally's organizers.

The event aims to draw attention to an issue that has shot to the forefront of the nationwide Occupy movement in recent days: foreclosures. Rhode Island has the highest foreclosure rate in New England and one of the worst in the country, according to HousingWorks RI.

Roughly one in 10 homeowners in the state have either been foreclosed upon during the last two years or gotten seriously behind in their payments.

"We can sit back all day and talk about major economic reforms ... but there were a few things that stood out that Occupy brought to the surface just by existing, and they had to do with homelessness and foreclosure," said Mike McCarthy, an Occupy activist from Providence.

Occupy activists have worked closely with the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project to help homeless people in the park — some of whom were there long before the Occupy encampment — get the services they need. Homelessness and housing became two signature issues for the movement, McCarthy said, and holding an event with other advocacy groups is a way to rally forces and put forth a concrete legislative agenda.

The group Direct Action for Rights and Equality, for instance, will be pushing the General Assembly to pass a "right to rent" bill that would prevent the eviction of former homeowners or tenants in foreclosed homes and allow them instead to rent the property from the lender.

DARE member Theresa Price, her son and grandson were nearly evicted from their home in south Providence a few years ago because she fell ill and was unable to work for a year, she said. She eventually went back to work, and a loan modification helped her stay in the house.

"Unless you're rich you're one paycheck away from being kicked out," said Price, one of the speakers at Saturday's rally.

Constance Vergowven, another speaker, was homeless on and off for years, sleeping on family members' couches and in shelters, even a few nights in her car, before she secured a spot in Newport's public housing in the mid-1990s. The 46-year-old says she owes her stability in large part to affordable housing — more of which is needed in Rhode Island, advocates say. Vergowven was able to get work, regain custody of her daughter and go to college.

"It changed my life," she said.

Activists are planning to camp for one night at the Statehouse in an action meant to highlight the reality that people sleep outside in Rhode Island — and across the country — every night, not because of any protest but because they have nowhere to go and many shelters are full.

It was not clear Friday afternoon whether authorities would try to prevent the activists from camping. Christine Hunsinger, a spokeswoman for Gov. Lincoln Chafee, said Occupy Providence had been notified that erecting tents on the Capitol grounds requires a permit and that overnight camping is not allowed.

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