- Associated Press - Thursday, February 19, 2015

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - The homeless population in Rhode Island has decreased for the second year in a row, and advocates on Thursday pointed to the state’s improved economy as helping ease the problem.

The total number of people who spent at least one night at a homeless shelter declined about 8.5 percent last year, from 4,447 in 2013 to 4,067 in 2014, according to data from the state’s Homeless Management Information System.

In 2012, the homeless population in Rhode Island was 4,868.

About two-thirds of that reduction is because fewer people became homeless for the first time in 2014, said HMIS Committee Chairman Eric Hirsch.

“Certainly, the economy is why fewer people have come into the system,” said Jim Ryczek, executive director of advocacy group Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless.

The recent upturn in the economy, along with last year’s $1-per-hour increase in the state’s minimum wage rate, might account for the decrease.

The data was released Thursday as part of the coalition’s second annual report card on the state’s plan to prevent and end homelessness. While the advocacy group gave the plan an overall grade of “B,” it said the state’s relatively high unemployment rate, along with a lack of funding for state programs that help homeless people receive disability income benefits, are stalling progress.

State Sen. Elizabeth A. Crowley, D-Central Falls, Pawtucket, and State Rep. Scott A. Slater, also a Democrat, said they co-sponsored legislation that would introduce $12.5 million into the state budget for building and rehabilitating affordable housing.

Advocates said getting people out of shelters and into permanent housing is the next step.

“Since we’re seeing fewer people show up, we can concentrate our resources on people who are stuck in shelters and living there,” Hirsch said.

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