The situation is even worse for people struggling to get by. That helps explain why the number of unhoused people in the state climbed sharply in recent years. Nonprofit agencies like Crossroads RI, Rhode Island’s largest provider of services for the homeless, are responding by building more housing. But will this stem the tide of homelessness, and what else should be done to address the situation? I’m Ian Donnis and this week I’m going in-depth with Crossroads RI CEO Karen Santilli.


Ian Donnis: Welcome to The Public's Radio.

Karen Santilli: Thank you, Ian. It's Great to be here.

Donnis: According to your organization, the number of people living on the street in Rhode Island increased by 52% during the pandemic. Why was there such a sharp increase?

Santilli: I believe it's a combination of things. What we see when we talk with folks and do assessments of them when they come to us, it was a combination. People felt less safe in shelters while the world was being told to socially distance, stay three feet apart. It's really hard to do that when you're in a congregate shelter. But also, there were fewer and fewer apartments available for people to move into. I mean, it was great that we were keeping people from being evicted. The eviction moratorium saved lots and lots of households from becoming homeless. But the ongoing housing crisis that we've been experiencing for years really came to a head during that time. And so you had a combination of people already experiencing homelessness that didn't feel safe in shelters for health reasons. And then also people who may have been doubled up couch-surfing had to leave where they were because they had too many people in their household and didn't have apartments to go into.

Donnis: As you say Rhode Island is suffering from a long term housing crisis. That's even a bigger, more tough situation for people at risk or facing homelessness. How is Crossroads responding?

Santilli: So during the pandemic, we you know, it was all hands on deck and we connected with our partner agencies in the various state agencies, and really initially just tried keeping people alive. But what we've since then really continued with our plan to create more housing. So we pre-pandemic had a plan to develop a certain number of new apartments for households with extremely low income, households that had been experiencing homelessness. We continued forward with that plan to build those housing units while we expanded shelter. So we opened up two shelters during the pandemic that are still open today, two separate locations for couples, people in a relationship that don't want to split up and go to a gender specific shelter can stay together. So we've continued to operate those shelters. And then there's this space in between the housing and the shelter that we call housing problem-solving. And we've been putting a lot of resources into this new tool in our toolbox as a way to connect people to services rapidly, keep their time during – that they're experiencing homelessness rare and brief, and nonrecurring. So our goal is to connect to them quickly, give them the resources they need to quickly end their homelessness, and then ensure that they stay housed.

Donnis: What are the biggest obstacles to making more progress in reducing homelessness?

Santilli: I would say that our biggest obstacle right now is really and truly the lack of apartments that people can afford. I get calls and emails every day from elected officials, businesses, people in the community who know of someone that is losing their apartment, because the rent is going up and they can't afford the new rent, or their landlord has a family member moving in and they have to move out. And people are still living paycheck to paycheck, they don't have the funds to be able to secure a deposit first and last month's rent indoor security deposit. And so really, truly having the affordable apartments available for people to move into. But also, you know, there's this crisis that we read and hear about that I believe is also impacting people experiencing homelessness around behavioral and mental health, and the lack of resources for people to get the help that they need. Once their housed to maintain and stabilize their housing,

Donnis: Some of Crossroads' proposals for housing have run into sharp opposition from neighborhood groups, does that show that your organization is falling short to some degree in building grassroots support for these proposals?

Santilli: I don't believe that is true. There is one neighborhood association, and it's a few members of that association that we have heard from, and we've been meeting with them on a regular basis and heard their concerns. For one of our developments. We recently went to the City Planning Commission for another one of our developments. And there was no opposition at that meeting. And in fact, there were several people from the neighborhood that lived in Providence and or the neighborhood directly around where we're building that supported this project. And one person said they were proud that this kind of development was coming into Providence. And so it's a work in progress, and we continue to continue to do what we can to meet with the neighbors. At the end of the day, we know when the housing is built, it's going to be beautiful, it's going to elevate a community. And it will be I think some of the fears that people have will not be seen will not be experienced.

Donnis: We're talking here with Karen Santilli, CEO of Crossroads Rhode Island. Amid the heatwave this week, advocates say there are still about 250 people living outside on the streets. In their view, Providence Mayor Brett Smiley just wants to clear encampments and not address the underlying issue of the need for housing or shelter. Do you agree, disagree?

Santilli: I know you're the political reporter. And I try not to be political, but I have to disagree with that. I don't believe he just wants to clear encampments and not address the underlying issues. In fact, under his administration, we've received, continue to receive funding for our housing problem solving mobile diversion work in Providence. It's a significant grant for this work where we are directly on the streets, connecting individuals who are unsheltered and connecting them to housing resources. In fact, since we started this grant in 2022, was the first grant was prior to his administration but we have reconnected 261 households in Providence to housing at a cost of about $2,000 a household. That's far less expensive than running shelters. It's far more safe, respectful and dignified for the individuals that we're housing because we're getting them out of homelessness quickly. And we're doing this with the support of his administration.

Donnis: I've got another political question for you, you're s native of Rhode Island So you've watched for years, as Rhode Island has tried to develop a more robust economy, there's been, you know, little progress here or there. But the state still lacks clear engines of job growth. And according to crossroads, the largest number of homeless people are the working poor. So is it a failure of the state's political leadership over time that we do not have a stronger economy?

Santilli: I don't, I would say that it's -- in Rhode Island as well as nationally, on average, you will see in communities that of 100% of people who are experiencing homelessness 20 to 25% are the chronically homeless, they're the individuals that have multiple co occurring issues, that that have a variety of chronic homelessness and a variety of other issues that we're working with them on to help them stabilize the vast majority. And this is again, national statistics as well. 75 to 80% of individuals are the working poor, I would say we need to do a better job in helping people increase their incomes. But we're not trying to at Crossroads solve poverty, we're trying to end homelessness. We appreciate the recent investments that the state has made in homelessness and housing. We think there needs to be – there needs to be more. And I would say that a combination of increased income as well as more housing unit starts, that we can increase the number of units– apartments available, and that allows, hopefully, rents will not continue to increase at the rates they're increasing.

Donnis: We're in the middle of summer right now. So it's hard to think about colder weather, but it seems like the state has been caught a little off balance the last two winters with the need for emergency housing and other services to provide the homeless. How is the outlook from your perspective as we will eventually head into another winter season?

Santilli: Yes, so pre-pandemic, Rhode Island's point in time count for unsheltered was less than 50 individuals. And so yes, people say well, winter happens every year. And we're caught unaware. The speed of the increase in unsheltered homeless not only the numbers that increased, but the rate at which they increase the system was simply unprepared to respond that quickly. And we didn't have the resources. And I think that's where you get into the conversation of is it shelter or housing, it needs to be both. And we need to continue that investment in housing. If we had built the housing that we're talking about pre pandemic three years ago, and turning hotels and dorms and nursing homes, perhaps into apartments at the time when the pandemic first started where we were talking about that we would have those units online now. So we need to continue that long term focus. The request for proposals for the consolidated homeless fund has just come out. So service providers are in the process of responding to that. I can say there's more funds available than we've ever seen, thanks to leadership and the administration putting more funds into this. I'm hopeful that we can find the right size shelter system to address the unsheltered but also, again, continuing with the housing problem solving. Not everybody will go into a shelter bed, not everybody wants a shelter bed, and we need to make sure we're not over building a shelter system. But looking at that as part of the solution while we invest in housing problem solving, as well as our housing development.

Donnis: House Speaker Joe Shekarchi. She was here last week, he said the state is going in the right direction in confronting the housing crisis but it will take time. As a close observer of housing issues. Do you feel like the state is serious and bringing enough urgency to addressing this serious need?

Santilli: I do believe that they – I've been at crossroads for 15 years. So I've been doing this work for that amount of time. I've never seen the level of commitment and investment at the state and in the General Assembly that I've seen in the last year or two. And that's really I'm really optimistic about that we need to continue. This is a situation that has been years in the making. The Boston Consulting Group study that came out showed the numbers. It's going to take us a little while to get out of it. I look forward to the commitment continuing I believe the new housing Secretary Pryor understands that this issue is fundamental to the state and the state's economy doing better. People can't find and maintain jobs. Children can't do well in school. Our health care costs are out of control when we have our neighbors experiencing homelessness. We just can't proceed without that

Donnis: CEO of Crossroads Rhode Island Karen Santilli, thank you very much for joining us.

Santilli: Thank you for having me.

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Rhode Island politicians have had a rough few months. There was the disastrous trip by two state officials to Philadelphia that generated a wave of negative headlines. More recently, a signature-gathering scandal in the 1st Congressional District confirmed some cynics’ worst assumptions about candidates and campaigns. If you’re looking for a silver lining, the exposure of these episodes is certainly better than if they had been kept under wraps. But for all the passage of time since the scandal-plagued 1980s and other dubious moments in Rhode Island’s political history, recent events do not show the state in its best light. 

That’s our show for this week. Our producer is James Baumgartner.

I’m Ian Donnis and I’ll see you on the radio.