100s of RI students are starting the school year homeless. How one shelter is trying to help.


MIDDLETOWN, R.I. (WPRI) – Hundreds of Rhode Island children are starting the school year without a permanent place to live, forcing them to stay with other families, in motels or in the most dire circumstances, on the streets.

But a homeless shelter in Middletown is working to support families by assisting mothers to find jobs and affordable housing while also trying to keep children from falling off track in school.

Lucy’s Hearth has been in operation for 33 years, but recently moved into a new building that gives small rooms to 15 families, according to Jennifer Barrera, the organization’s program director. Barrera said most families stay in the shelter for between three and six months, although she acknowledged some end up staying longer.

“The best outcomes for us, for the families, are that they achieve permanent affordable housing, that the moms and children, actually the whole family, increases their self-sufficiency,” Barrera told Eyewitness News. “So they’re getting higher-paying jobs, or they’re getting education or training opportunities.”

More than 1,000 public school students in Rhode Island were considered homeless during the 2015-16 school year, according to the most recent available data provided to Rhode Island Kids Count, the state’s leading child advocacy organization. Providence had the most homeless students (146), but Middletown was second with 117. Only eight communities in the state reported zero homeless kids.

Children who do not have a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence are considered homeless, according to the McKinney-Vento Act, a federal law passed in 1987. In Rhode Island, 64% of homeless students were “doubled up” with other families, 25% lived in shelters, 10% lived in hotels or motels and 1% were unsheltered in the 2015-16 school year, according to Kids Count.

The federal law also allows students who are considered homeless to remain in their home school districts even if they are living outside the district. In Middletown’s case, many children who live at Lucy’s Hearth during the spring or summer end up enrolling in the district’s public schools.

Barrera said between 40 and 50 children from newborns to 18-year-olds live at Lucy’s Hearth. While the facility is in excellent condition, she said the goal is limit the amount time families stay in the shelter.

“Although this is a great facility and we work really hard so that the families are healthy and safe and the children have all of their needs met, they still are experiencing an episode of homelessness,” Barrera said. “And children who experience homelessness are at risk for a whole host of other issues, even into their adulthood.”

Barrera said most homeless children are at risk of facing additional educational difficulties and more likely to have chronic health conditions like asthma and respiratory issues. She said the shelter works with school districts to provide transportation and tutoring to those in need.

She said many of the families that come to Lucy’s Hearth have faced significant trauma, including family separation, violence and substance abuse. At the same time, the cost of housing has a continued to grow. A single parent earning the minimum wage would need to work 81 hours a week to afford the average two-bedroom apartment in Rhode Island, according to a report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

And some of the biggest consequences from being homeless can be felt in school. Barrera said teachers see kids who are sleeping in different places every night, are hungry and aren’t dressed properly, making it difficult for students to focus on classroom work.

“Homelessness affects all of us and even if you don’t know what it means to be homeless or you know someone who is homeless or you see a panhandler on the street, homelessness for children is a great problem,” Barrera said.

Barrera said the most important thing adults can do to help homeless families is get involved through donations to shelters or volunteering their time. Donations to Lucy’s Hearth can be made here.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan