As homeless encampments grow, Rhode Island’s government is focused on selling off state-owned homes and giving profitable businesses a handout. Meanwhile, LGBTQ Rhode Islanders are left out in the cold.
Politicians and businesses love to talk up an alleged worker shortage. Talking heads drone on about how there are more job openings than unemployed workers. One doesn’t have to search too hard to find a business owner complaining they can’t find workers. Upon all this, you’d think workers are in hot demand and being paid a premium to sign on. Yet, across the country and here in Rhode Island, we are not seeing that, instead we are seeing a growing homelessness crisis.
There are a growing number of people questioning the labor shortage narrative. TikTokers giving advice on job hunting have brought up how businesses that received federal loans during COVID but still laid off staff can get those loans forgiven if they post a job opening and claim no one that applied met their qualifications. Others allege that businesses are saying they can’t find any workers to get sympathy from shoppers when in reality they just don’t want to hire more employees to work cash registers or stock shelves.
Online, I’ve had multiple mothers tell me that stores would say they are desperate to hire anyone but these same businesses refused to interview these women’s young adult children. Worse than all the speculation is that researchers from the Harvard Business Review found employers are inadvertently screening out millions of qualified applicants because they use clunky hiring software.
Rhode Island is seeing this all play out too. So much so that Governor Dan McKee announced this month that he’d use $4.5 million in CARES Act funds to give businesses up to $5,000 if they claim they can’t find any workers. The money is supposed to go toward the cost of hiring more Rhode Islanders. This initiative has no demand that a business show it is facing tough financial times that prevents it from spending its own money to find employees. So, it is very likely many of the companies that shall receive these government checks will be completely profitable, healthy companies.
It should always give us pause when elected officials hand out money to profitable businesses. Yet, we should ask ourselves is Rhode Island facing a labor shortage? According to McKee’s own Department of Labor and Training, the state’s unemployment has risen; Rhode Island lost 2,100 jobs in October. Yet, what makes McKee’s announcement so bizarre, is that in the same week he also announced he would spend a little bit more money, $5 million, to combat the growing homeless crisis in the state. This is where the labor shortage narrative falls apart: In what bizarro world would you have a labor shortage and a homelessness crisis?
One would expect during a labor shortage wages to climb while homelessness and unemployment fall as more people join the workforce and receive higher wages. On the other side of the coin, one would expect homelessness to climb when jobs and government assistance were hard to find. One might also expect homelessness to climb if the housing supply doesn’t meet demand. Yet, population growth from 2019 to 2020 actually declined slightly in the Northeast. So in theory, there should be slightly more housing available in our region.
Rhode Island’s homeless population had been increasing before the COVID-19 pandemic and has only gotten worse since. It also shouldn’t surprise anyone that homelessness would continue to climb after a majority of Rhode Islanders on unemployment lost all weekly aid when extended federal unemployment assistance ran out on September 4. Yet, political leaders didn’t plan ahead for this cliff. Instead, the state has been selling homes it owns instead of housing people in them. In Providence alone, encampments of homeless residents have faced police harassment, or worse, they may find a city councilor trying to get their encampment removed altogether.
Attacks on homeless people are attacks on the Queer and Trans community. While less than 7 percent of straight people have ever been homeless, 17 percent of LGBTQ people have. Worse still, LGBTQ youth are 120 percent more likely to experience homelessness than their straight peers. 8 percent of Trans Americans have experienced homelessness in the last year –– not ever, in the last year! Homelessness is an LGBTQ rights issue.
It would be unfair to blame a governor who has only been in office a few months, especially one filling in for a vacancy, for a homeless crisis after the largest shock American society has had since World War II. Yet, Rhode Island is flush with cash, not only did we receive $1 billion in federal COVID aid, the state is projected to bring in $618 million more in revenue than budgeted for the next fiscal year.
There is no excuse for our government to not tackle the homelessness crisis today. Spending any of that money instead on handouts to profitable businesses is unconscionable cruelty toward the homeless and the communities that are most at risk. We all should ask Governor McKee, when will he get his act together?