Five Questions With: Karen Santilli

Karen Santilli is the CEO and president of Crossroads Rhode Island, the state’s largest nonprofit that works with homeless individuals and families.

On Thursday, along with two other human services partners, the organization will launch a campaign designed to find suitable housing for 38 families who are going to lose their vouchers for housing within the next 100 days.

Santilli spoke to the Providence Business News about the population experiencing homelessness in the state.

PBN: What is the homeless population of Rhode Island and how much of this is centered in Providence?

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SANTILLI: Over the course of a year, on average, the number has been pretty steady, between 4,000 and 4,100 people will experience homelessness. We used to be able to ask for the ZIP code of their last residence. This is a couple of years old, but the last time we asked, 51% of people newly coming into homelessness were from Providence. So 49% were from the rest of the state.

PBN: Is addiction having any influence on those numbers?

SANTILLI: We don’t have good data that shows a correlation between the number of individuals who are becoming homeless and the opioid crisis. However, we have certainly seen an increase in the number of times we’ve had to use Narcan in the last year, compared to previous years. We have spent a lot of time and resources training our staff, our residents and our shelter guests on how to administer Narcan. And we’ve made sure it’s available in all of our locations. There has always been, of the chronic homeless, individuals who are using drugs or alcohol. But that is actually a minority of the homeless population.

PBN: Your program launching today is aimed at finding apartments that are available for families waiting for units. What is the biggest obstacle – is it the availability of suitable apartments or reluctance by landlords to take in someone who was recently homeless?

SANTILLI: For our families, the biggest obstacle has been the availability of safe, decent and affordable apartments. We actually have lots of partnerships with landlords across the state. These [housing] vouchers can be used anywhere in the state. We have probably 50 landlords across the state who we’re working with. They know, No. 1, the rent gets paid on time. And if there is any problem, they know we’re right there to help them resolve any issue that may arise.

For us, right now, the biggest obstacle is finding safe, decent and affordable apartments. We have a team of housing locators. We do the inspections. We follow [Department of Housing and Urban Development’s] standard of housing criteria. We’re looking for lead and asbestos, pest control, proper number of bedrooms. The housing has to be at a standard level. It has to be a legal apartment. Given the vacancy rate in the state right now, and the number of available apartments, it’s simply finding the apartment. And then is the rent within the amount we’re allowed to pay.

PBN: What is the greatest misconception about homeless individuals?

SANTILLI: What I’ve learned in talking with people is that people tend to blame the individual for their homelessness. They feel they’re all using or abusing alcohol or drugs. That’s simply not the case. What we find is the vast majority are struggling to make ends meet and work really hard to end their homelessness. They work multiple jobs, overtime. There could be an illness in the family which left high medical bills. We’ve found, particularly with families, very high utility arrears. They can’t move into a new apartment and not have utilities, especially when there is utilities.

PBN: Are most homeless actually families?

SANTILLI: About 30-40% of the homeless number I gave you earlier are in families. The majority are individuals. What we are seeing is the number of homeless women is growing at a faster rate than men. What we’re seeing is just change in demographics. Women are feeling safer to leave a bad relationship. Or they were independent to begin with and now that they’ve run into financial difficulty, they end up here.

We’re also seeing, as the population has been aging, more older people coming into homelessness. They may have had some kind of an accident, and they’ve been in a rehab facility. When they get discharged from there, they have nowhere to go and they end up here.

Mary MacDonald is a staff writer for the PBN. Contact her at macdonald@pbn.com.

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