A way station on the journey out of homelessness

Walking into the Traveler's Aid Society downtown office can be a way off the streets for the homeless. Not a promise but an opportunity.

Since 1894, the society has grown into a full-service agency. Social workers and volunteers help the episodic or chronic homeless with child care, job training, education, health care, and drug rehabilitation.

"The difficulty is in figuring out how to reach most of the people who come here," says Marion Avarista, president of Traveler's Aid. "So many of the underlying problems can take a long time to root out."

Traveler's Aid Society here is part of a national network, with offices in hundreds of cities offering differing levels of services.

A recent report on homelessness by the US Conference of Mayors says 38 percent of homeless people in the 30 major cities studied are substance abusers; 24 percent are considered mentally ill; and 8 percent have been diagnosed with AIDS or HIV-related illnesses.

The all-important question, Ms. Avarista says, is which came first, the problems or the homelessness?

"Did these conditions cause people to become homeless," she says, "or did they rapidly occur because of being homeless?"

Avarista contends that the first step in addressing the needs has to be stable housing. "This has to happen in order to address the other problems," she says. "But you just can't give someone an apartment or help them find an apartment and let them go. So, you need housing with supportive services."

To do this Traveler's Aid offers Crossroads, a residential program in nearby North Kingstown, R.I., with 57 apartments for transitional living. "It's a two-year program," says Avarista, "with wraparound services, child care, jobs, education, everything." Average rent for a two bedroom apartment in Rhode Island in l997 was $648, well beyond the reach of half of all renters in the state, according to the Rhode Island Emergency Food and Shelter Board.

Some 800 women with children, fleeing domestic abuse, spent time in Providence shelters in l997, a number that has stayed fairly static over the last few years here. In many states the number of women fleeing domestic abuse is on the increase.

Still, with all the help Crossroads provides, the success rate is about 58 percent. "Other places report about a 25 percent success rate," Avarista says, "so we are grateful, but two years isn't long enough. Some of these people will need supportive services for 10 to 15 years. But at least they are functioning, and when there is a crisis in their lives, they won't fall apart and go back to their old ways."

Avarista has cobbled together some 50 different funding sources to reach a budget of $2.8 million. But the business community in downtown Providence wants Traveler's Aid to move. "They have never faulted our services," says Avarista, "but they feel we are a detriment here. The downtown area is going through a renaissance and they think we don't fit."

Many cities now criminalize use of public spaces by the homeless, and like Providence, do not want the homeless downtown.

After several attempts to relocate to other buildings, which triggered protests from those neighborhoods, Avarista says they want to buy the building they occupy now. "The city wants to turn it into a parking lot," she says, "but we're determined to stay."

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