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‘Stay home’: COVID-19 advice doesn’t work for RI’s homeless population

“We’re sort of used to working in crisis mode because when people come to us, they’re in crisis,” Santilli said. “This is a whole different level of crisis.”

March 16, 2020


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The mantra repeated daily among state leaders, public health officials, school administrators and employers is simple: “If you’re sick, stay home.”

The advice, designed to promote social distancing, is supposed to help stem the spread of the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19, a disease that’s killed more than 6,500 people worldwide. But it won’t resonate for one of the most vulnerable segments of Rhode Island’s population.

“There are some people who might hear that and think, ‘OK, but I don’t have a home,’” said Karen Santilli, president and CEO of Crossroads Rhode Island.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates there are about 1,055 people experiencing homelessness in Rhode Island. And while there are varying degrees of homelessness – ranging from temporarily losing a place to live to not having stable housing for more than a year – there’s a growing sense of uneasiness among Rhode Islanders living in shelters and those who serve them.

“We’re sort of used to working in crisis mode because when people come to us, they’re in crisis,” Santilli said. “This is a whole different level of crisis.”

Crossroads, based in Providence, is the largest provider of services for people experiencing homelessness in the state. On any given day, the nonprofit offers shelter to more than 200 men, women and families. If the shelters fill up, another 30 people can sleep on the floor of the nonprofit’s community room on Broad Street. It also provides affordable housing units and education and job-seeking programs to hundreds more.

To date, Santilli doesn’t know of anyone within the nonprofit’s network who has tested positive for COVID-19 or needed to self-quarantine because of exposure to the illness. But she’s concerned that the streak of no cases will change before too long.

“It would be naïve to think we continue on that path,” she said. “It would be wonderful, but I don’t think it’s probable.”

Like other organizations and employers, Crossroads has implemented changes to try and encourage cleanliness, well-being and social distancing. The nonprofit has asked its employees to do case management over the phone when possible. It has also increased cleaning measures and suspended all congregate meals, giving the 150 meals away on a to-go basis instead.

Crossroads is also breaking tradition by guaranteeing a bed to people for more than one night at Harrington Hall, a men’s-only shelter in Cranston. The multi-day guarantee is designed to prevent people from moving from shelter to shelter, also known as “shelter-hopping,” which could become problematic when trying to prevent community spread.

There are other aspects of the work, however, that make it challenging for Crossroads to comply with some of the state’s guidance, and Santilli is concerned that they will not have the capacity to help any large number of people experiencing homelessness if they also need to self-quarantine, which typically lasts two weeks.

The requirement to stay at least six feet apart from other people is also problematic.

“The beds at Harrington Hall are bolted, and they’re not six feet apart,” Santilli said. “They’re four feet apart and that’s a concern.”

For now, the nonprofit is not stopping intake of people experiencing homelessness, although Santilli said they’re encouraging other service providers to help minimize the number of walk-ins by reminding people that assessments can be done over the phone or through email.

But looking long-term, Santilli is concerned any prolonged shutdown of the economy is going to spur additional demands for services like the ones provided by Crossroads.

She was encouraged to learn National Grid Rhode Island, the state’s largest utility company, had announced it would not turn off utilities for overdue payments — which is a major driver of traffic for Crossroads — during the crisis.

But she’s nonetheless concerned about the economic hardship that could come from Gov. Gina Raimondo’s order on Monday to shut down all dine-in services at restaurant and bars. The order, which Santilli does not oppose under the current circumstances, could result in thousands of restaurant workers, event staff and other food-industry employees losing their jobs.

To combat such an outcome, Santilli would like to see some sort of economic stimulus or pause on evictions enforced in Rhode Island. Otherwise, she warned, the slowed economy caused by the coronavirus could ultimately result in lost wages and more people experiencing homelessness.

“I’ve very frightened about that,” she said. “Folks live paycheck to paycheck.”

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