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Housing advocates, Occupy march to RI Statehouse

By Erika Niedowski
Associated Press / December 10, 2011
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PROVIDENCE, R.I.—Affordable housing and homeless advocates in Rhode Island joined Occupy Providence on Saturday to call for more funding and the passage of legislation to protect the homeless from discrimination and foreclosed homeowners from eviction.

The march of about 200 people began Saturday afternoon at Burnside Park, where Occupy Providence has been encamped for nearly two months, and ended with a rally on the steps of the state Capitol. It featured a call for action from the homeless and formerly homeless, signs that declared housing a human right -- and even a musical performance by the Raging Grannies, who called in song for higher taxes on the rich.

The rally was designed to highlight advocates' three legislative priorities ahead of the opening of the session in January: a dedicated funding source for affording housing programs, a homeless bill of rights and a right-to-rent law allowing foreclosed homeowners to rent back their properties, rather than be evicted.

"The word `homeless' is an abomination," Theresa Price, a member of the group Direct Action for Rights and Equality, told the crowd. She once fell months behind on her mortgage payments and was facing foreclosure because she couldn't work for more than a year on account of an illness, she said.

Marty Rebman, who also spoke at the rally, said she has been living at the Crossroads shelter in Providence for just under a year; the facility in her home town of Westerly was full, she said.

Her trouble started three years ago when she was forced to quit her job to take care of her ill stepmother. After her stepmother died, she moved in temporarily with her father, but he was in subsidized housing so she wasn't allowed to stay.

Rebman, 44, is trained as a certified nurse's assistant but hasn't been able to find work. There are far more applicants than there are positions, she said, and transportation is difficult for her.

"People look down on you when your mailing address is a shelter," she said. "They don't call you back."

About 4,400 people in the state experienced homelessness at some point last year, according to the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless. Rhode Island has the highest rate of foreclosures in New England and one of the top rates in the country.

The coalition says money for affording housing and homelessness prevention has dried up, and the group is pushing the General Assembly to approve a dedicated funding stream. Coalition Executive Director Jim Ryczek said that 41 states, not including Rhode Island, have some form of constant funding.

"Unless we start investing in it, we're going to get what we deserve, which is a rise in homelessness and no affordable housing for the working poor," Ryczek said.

The rally was to be followed by discussion groups, a potluck dinner and the setting up of tents for a one-night camp-out on the Capitol grounds. Camping is usually not permitted, but Gov. Lincoln Chafee said Friday he was lifting some restrictions because activists with Occupy Providence agreed to leave promptly and peacefully on Sunday.

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