One state's homeless crisis, in plain view

Shelters are full. Overflow facilities are at capacity. Churches open their doors and floors to the homeless. It's not an unusual scenario, perhaps, during the howling nights of dark winter, but in mid-spring?

Such has been the case, though, this season in Rhode Island, a tiny state with a burgeoning homeless population. Indeed, the state capital, Providence, registered the sharpest increase among US cities in requests for emergency shelter in 2004, a US Conference of Mayors survey shows.

Driving the rise in homelessness is a confluence of trends: People fleeing outrageous housing costs in Massachusetts can live here and commute to Boston by train - but are pushing up local prices. Then, too, enrollment at universities is growing - and students compete with working residents for apartments. Finally, the state is simply small, with less acreage to build on.

Officials are grappling with what to do, and the state has set up an office to devise a homeless/ affordable housing strategy. "What's really alarming ... is that it is no longer just the chronically homeless, but families, mothers with children," says Providence Mayor David Cicilline.

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