- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 26, 2014

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - The number of homeless people in Rhode Island fell 9 percent last year, a decline that advocates said Wednesday is evidence that the state’s economy is improving and that programs to help the homeless are working.

Some 4,447 people stayed in a homeless shelter or transitional housing at least one night in 2013, down from 4,868 in 2012. The number of homeless children, families and veterans also declined.

The economy and housing programs are behind the positive trend, said Providence College professor Eric Hirsch, who released the statistics Wednesday.

“We’re starting to see fewer people come in the door,” he said. “Almost all of the decline is due to fewer first-time homeless people.”

The number of homeless people in Rhode Island had been increasing since 2007. The state’s 9.1 unemployment rate is the highest in the nation, but it’s an improvement over the nearly 12 percent jobless rate seen in Rhode Island only a few years ago.

State initiatives like rental vouchers and more affordable housing are also credited with decreasing the number of Rhode Islanders with no place to call home. Hirsch said ending homelessness isn’t just a moral priority but a fiscal one as well: He said the cost of providing Medicaid benefits to a homeless person is $10,000 more than for a typical Medicaid user.

State Sen. Elizabeth Crowley said the decline in homelessness is a cause for celebration but he doesn’t want to see the state declare victory. She said lawmakers need to continue funding programs to end homelessness.

“We have to sustain this,” said Crowley, D-Central Falls. “Until we get to zero we have work to do.”

Dorothy Lawless is one of the success stories. The 25-year-old woman was homeless for more than a year before she and her husband, Gordon, got an apartment this week. Lawless said she’s grateful for the shelter that housed her - and for the programs that helped her escape homelessness.

“There are programs out there that will help you,” she said. “I can’t help but be thankful.”