Deb moved to South County from Massachusetts two-and-a-half years ago, looking for a new start by the ocean. With a background in nursing, she decided to start a footcare business.
She made connections, had brochures professionally made, and was getting ready to launch. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and because of a pre-existing lung condition, Deb put her plans on hold out of fear of being infected. With no income, she lost the place she was renting in Charlestown.
“I didn’t have a place to live,” said Deb, whose full name is not being used to protect her privacy. “And so some friends drove 700 miles from Virginia and helped pack me up and took me back to their home so that I would have a place to lay my head.”
Deb said she’s adamant about remaining positive and hopes to soon be back in Rhode Island, where she’s left her belongings with a friend. But she said her situation is shocking. As a nurse and volunteer, Deb’s used to being the person who helps other people.
“I actually consider myself very privileged,” she said by phone. “I never expected to be in the position that I’m in. There’s only one place left and that’s up.”
In the months since the pandemic hit, stories like Deb’s have become more common.
On a recent weekday, Hattie Fairbanks, housing navigator at the WARM Center in Westerly, read over a list of people who have come to the homeless shelter and social services agency for emergency housing assistance.
“Almost everyone here says lost wages?COVID, lost wages?COVID,” Fairbanks said. “We have [a] mother and two children in a hotel. She lost her income due to COVID. We have a young couple. Both lost their jobs because of COVID. There’s a tremendous COVID impact on the list that I’m looking at.”
Fairbanks spends her days searching for affordable apartments, working with landlords who have helped her clients in the past, placing people in motels, and connecting clients with assistance programs.
She said she sees one to two new cases every day and already has a list some 500 cases long.
“I would say, right now, we’re up by 20 percent in the numbers of people that we’re seeing who are at risk of becoming homeless or who have become homeless,” said Russ Partridge, executive director of the WARM Center.
[DISCLOSURE: The author’s wife serves on the WARM Center Board of Directors.]
Partridge said more people are struggling to make rent because of cuts to the tourism and service industries, economic drivers in South County.
According to the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, between March 9 and September 12, more than 2,600 Washington County residents previously employed in the leisure and hospitality sector filed for unemployment insurance.
“These are people who are new,” Partridge said. “So they’re coming in really frightened that A: they may not get the answers that they need and get the resources that they need, but in the end, they may become homeless.”
Sarah Cote, of the Jonnycake Center social services agency in Westerly, said the COVID-19 pandemic is “exacerbating a situation, as it relates to affordable housing, that I think has already existed in this area, and we’re just seeing it more acutely now.”
Excluding Block Island, all Washington County towns are short of the state’s goal of having 10 percent of a municipality’s housing stock qualify as low-and moderate-income housing, and a majority of towns are below six percent.
“All of the communities in South County are well above what people can afford,” said Brenda Clement, executive director of HousingWorks RI.
A major problem is the fact that many property owners can get more renting to college students during the school year and vacationers in the summer.
Alice Buckley, executive director of the Washington County Community Development Corporation, said the current housing sales boom has also made it harder for her organization to buy new properties to create more affordable units.
“The availability is just not there,” Buckley said. “The prices are quite high and they sell pretty quickly. You really need to have a seller who is somewhat passionate about affordable housing.”
Last month, the CDC issued an eviction moratorium through the end of the year, but renters need to submit a declaration to their landlord to be protected, continue to make what payments they can, and pay back rent when the order expires.
With uncertainty around a government stimulus package and the possibility of a COVID-19 resurgence looming, some worry the situation could get worse for people facing housing insecurity.
Charlene Traynum, of South Kingstown, says she can empathize with people struggling, because she’s faced her own housing challenges.
On a recent weekday, she toured her backyard with a reporter, pointing out vegetables growing in the garden.
“We have corn this year. We have red cabbage, regular cabbage,” she said.
Traynum lives with her husband and kids in a single family house with a big yard in the back for her dog to play in.
But, last year she was scrambling after her landlord decided to sell the home she’d been in for 11 years. Rental prices elsewhere in town were high, and she spent months trying to find a place she could afford.
In the end, she signed a lease on a new place, but, at nearly $1,800 a month, it’s about $450 more than she was paying. Still, she says, she’s grateful.
“I’m happy. I’m secure. I’m in a good place,” Traynum said. “Hopefully, from this point, I’ll be able to go into purchasing my own [home]?that’s the goal. We don’t ever want to have to do this again. It’s the worst feeling in the world.”
Traynum said her experience has also inspired her to push for changes that could help other people in South Kingstown.
“I’m just becoming a stronger advocate,” she said. “I need to make a difference. I need to help somewhere. To change it, you got to be involved in your community. You have to know what’s going on in your community.”
Earlier this year, Traynum joined the South Kingstown Housing Authority. She has several goals, and one is to push for more affordable housing in the town.