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'HARVESTING' HELP FOR THE HOMELESS

By Emily Dupuis - The Sun Staff

WESTERLY - Those who have long fretted the lack of shelter for local homeless families have a plan; now, they say, they need the funding.

For the past six months, a steering committee of local church and non-profit organization members has been developing a model to place one homeless family into a fair-market apartment and share their cost of living under the maxim Harvest Homes: Growing Homes for Families in Rhode Island.

Rev. Jean Barry, executive director of the Westerly Area Rest and Meals (WARM) shelter, said the upstart for the apartment is expected to cost at around $31,300. They received a $10,000 grant from the Kimball Foundation and had hoped to receive a $30,000 state grant, but learned it fell through last week.

The group -- headed by the established WARM shelter -- now needs to raise around $15,000 to be in line to place that first family in December.

Barry is confident. As of Thursday, the group had already moved $3,000 closer to that goal, she said.

And the organization has partnered with the Local United Network to Combat Hunger (LUNCH) to host a concert fund-raiser on Saturday at the Dunn's Corners Community Church, Presbyterian.

The concert -- featuring performances by children in grades 4 through 12 -- is scheduled for 7 p.m., with a pre-show at 6:15 p.m., and costs $10 for adults and $6 for children.

"It's going to be a great night with great music" for families, enthused Joy Cordio, a member of the Harvest Homes committee.

A nonprofit group founded in 1989 by Bill Pere, the ensemble continues the legacy of the late singer, songwriter and World Hunger Year founder Harry Chapin, raising money for social service agencies and non-profit groups.

Cordio said, exceeding expectations, they hope to collect at least $4,000 with the show, putting Harvest Homes closer to its goal.

The bulk of the $31,296, Barry said, would cover rent at $700 a month, heat, electricity, phone and a part-time case manager.

Harvest Homes would enter into the lease with the landlord and provide rent in decreasing amounts as the family grew more able to contribute as well as services including employment counseling, Cordio said.

To make two additional apartment available, Barry said they plan to apply for state grants before July 1.

Cordio said three Westerly landlords have committed to the agency, providing five units.

"We have been very fortunate to have people (landlords) approach us," she added.

Cordio said both employed and unemployed families would be invited to fill out apartment intake applications. However, the agency cannot take victims of domestic violence who already have access to shelters and will not accept individuals with drug or alcohol problems.

Half of homeless families are working poor who cannot put down first and last's months rent plus a security deposit in South County's high-priced housing market where more affordable family units rent for at least $900 month, Cordio added.

Of 200 documented homeless families in Washington County, 50 are from Westerly, she said, adding these Washington County Coalition for Children figures do not include those living with family or who choose not to seek help.

While the WARM Shelter stretches to accommodate as many as 24 individuals a night, it only accepts singles.

"There is nothing in Washington County for children or for families," Cordio said, noting the closest are in Pawtucket or Mystic.

Washington County families resort to living in beach motels, cars and even barns through the winter months.

"I don't think people have a clue," she added of the number of homeless. "I think they would be amazed if they knew."

Barry strongly agreed, noting 50 families were recorded living in motels last winter and she expects the number to rise this winter with energy costs.

"It's up to us who know about it to respond," Barry said. "I think it's my responsibility that people get that knowledge."

Cordio stressed Harvest Homes strives to place families back on their feet, and will likely evaluate tenants after 16 to 18 months to ensure they are progressing.

"We cannot make someone independent and self-sufficient," Cordio said. "They have to be willing to work for it."

Barry said depending on the family, she suspects some may be able to take over the lease within two to three months while others may end up having to consider other housing options.

Originally Published November 2005, The Westerly Sun

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