Students share warmth of their hearts with homeless

First of two parts

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PROVIDENCE — Janelie Alicea spent time in prison, had been homeless and used drugs. Allan Patrick lived on the streets of Providence for two-and-a-half years.

Alicea and Patrick are two people who got their lives back on track and now have a place to call home.

But there are more than 940 Rhode Islanders without a place to live, according to the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless.

On Sunday, 112 Catholic high school students slept outside on a bone-chilling night in Cathedral Square in 25-degree weather and learned firsthand about homelessness.

The students from St. Raphael Academy, La Salle Academy, The Prout School, Bishop Hendricken High School and Mount St. Charles Academy have raised more than $3,000 for Bishop Thomas J. Tobin’s “Keep the Heat On” fund. They also sent petitions to the General Assembly endorsing the Neighborhood Opportunities Program.

Alicea shared her powerful story with the students during the sleep out, and Patrick visited the large group to offer his encouragement for the project.

Andres Taborda, a St. Raphael junior, said, “I don’t think I’d be able to live outside in the cold that is unbearable.” The Pawtucket teen said, “I think the legislature needs to fund affordable housing so the homeless can afford housing and not be under these conditions.”

Around 5:45 Monday morning as Taborda stood shivering outside a cardboard box that he slept in, he said, “I still feel bad, but now I see how it is to be homeless and the homeless are people and God’s creation and God didn’t create them to suffer in the cold.”

People such as Patrick and Alicea represent Taborda's sentiments. Patrick said, “I used to sleep on the stairs of the Cathedral. I slept outside Classical High School. I used to find little cubbyholes.” Patrick is now a dishwasher and lives with a friend at the Cathedral Square apartments.

Patrick, 46, echoed that the General Assembly should provide more money for homelessness, “but only if it goes to build affordable housing.”

Alicea, 38, who struggled with drug addiction, credits Amos House for turning her life around. The Pawtucket mother is an assistant chef at Amos House, which provides transitional housing and meals for people in Providence.

“I was on drugs and in prison and the culinary arts program at Amos House changed my life and now I have skills to work,” Alicea said.

“I’m licensed as a chef for five years and now I’m a working woman,” she said.

“The homeless problem is chronic and long-term and 90 percent of it is economic, because of a lost job and loss of income,” said Jim Ryczek, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless. “The other 10 percent are people on the street and many of them have significant trauma histories. It’s not uncommon to find women with a sexual-abuse history or veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Ryczek attributes the free-falling economy and foreclosure woes as two major factors that lead to homelessness. “‘Renters are a real concern. There are many instances when they are not told by the landlord of foreclosure and when the landlord tenant act doesn’t comply people must leave,” he said.

The high school students’ goals are to help foster more affordable housing and raise money to help people pay for heating.

They are urging the General Assembly to include money for the Neighborhood Opportunities Program and give a face to the homeless as well.

Stephanie Blanchette, a senior at Mount St. Charles, said the students wrote letters to state legislators to “get things fixed and produce more affordable housing.”

Homes financed through Neighborhood Opportunities have produced 1,800 jobs for Rhode Islanders, and added more than $96 million in local income and $10.3 million in taxes and other revenues, according to Rhode Island Housing.

Noreen Shawcross, chief of the office of Housing and Community Development in Rhode Island, said the state has a plan to put a roof on homelessness. She said the state “is working closely with the Department of Corrections to prevent homelessness” by identifying housing resources.

She said the Department of Children, Youth and Families and Mental Health, Retardation and Hospitals “are tracking people discharged from psychiatric hospitals and youth leaving foster care.”

Shawcross said vocational training, mental-health treatment and housing subsidies are being sought.