By Patricia Andreu
Karen Santilli is used to handling crises in
her work as president and CEO of Crossroads Rhode Island, the state’s
largest provider of services for the homeless. But the current
coronavirus emergency is posing an unprecedented challenge for the
agency and its clients. “At a time when lots of places are closing, and
rightly so, we’re not,” says Santilli.
crises is not new to Karen Santilli. It’s at the very heart of her work
as president and CEO of Crossroads Rhode Island. She leads a team that
provides shelter, services and housing for the homeless, offering
stability to those facing desperate situations so they can get back on
“When they’re first experiencing homelessness, they
are in crisis,” said Santilli, 53, of Crossroads’ clients. “They’ve gone
through whatever social safety net they had. And by the time they get
to us, they have really nothing but the shirts on their backs and what
they can carry.
“Our job is to deal with the crisis that they’re
in and get them out of it. That’s what our folks do. So, we’re kind of
used to it.”
in the last few weeks, the complexity of Santilli’s work has been
compounded by the new coronavirus. And the seasoned staffers at
Crossroads, like so many on the frontlines, are fighting to overcome
professional and personal hurdles unlike any they’ve ever encountered.
current situation is a level of crisis and anxiety that, obviously,
none of us has ever experienced in our lifetimes,” said Santilli. “And,
it’s really challenging.”
The challenge is particularly daunting
for Crossroads, Rhode Island’s largest provider of services for the
homeless. It’s a massive and multi-layered organization that serves not
only 300 men, women and children in its shelters, but also residents who
live in Crossroads’ 325 permanent supportive housing units across the
state, and another 95 households who receive rental assistance.
Since March 3, Santilli and her team have been devising plans and protocols to stay ahead of the fast-spreading virus.
been educating staff and clients about safety measures, such as the
need to constantly wash their hands. They’ve distributed soap,
antibacterial gels and sanitizing wipes. They’ve tripled the number of
times they clean their facilities.
They’re being proactive while reacting in real time to the ever-changing rules of the road.
as we know it have really paused, and we’re kind of building the boat
as we’re rowing,” said Cicely Dove, vice president of family services.
single order is ‘stay home,’ ‘don’t congregate,‘” said Michelle Wilcox,
Crossroads’ chief operating officer. “But the reality for people
experiencing homelessness is that our shelters, our emergency shelter
system, are congregant shelters. We have dozens and, in some cases, over
100 people sharing a single relatively confined space.”
Enacting social-distancing measures in close quarters is no easy task.
the family and domestic violence shelters, the use of dining halls has
been limited to four families at a time. Communal areas such as living
rooms and computer labs have been closed. The state is erecting a tent
outside the 100-plus-bed men’s shelter in Cranston to give the men a
safe place to go during the day. Meals are now grab-and-go, with Amos
House providing breakfast and lunch for many of those in shelters.
a time when lots of places are closing, and rightly so, we’re not,”
said Santilli, who’s been at the helm of Crossroads since 2015. “We’re
trying to figure out how to expand our hours to make sure that the
people we serve are safe and are okay.”
Another top concern for Santilli is the safety of her 150
employees. To reduce the risk of infection, staffing has been pared
down, with non-essential employees working from home. Only those dealing
directly with clients and building maintenance — such as shelter
managers, case managers and facilities staff — are allowed on site. So
far, she said, there are no cases of coronavirus at Crossroads.
the homeless population becomes infected, it’s likely going to come
from the people who are working with them, not from the homeless
community,” said Wilcox. “But it’s going to spread like wildfire,
because it’s a highly contagious disease and, given the living
circumstances of people experiencing homelessness, it’s just so much
more dangerous for them. And they’re more vulnerable, because they have a
much higher percentage of [other] illnesses already.”
has four children and has been working from home since schools closed,
is concerned about the impact this crisis will have on the families in
“Dealing with a pandemic in your own home can be a bit
of a challenge,” said Dove. “But it’s even more complex and arduous and
challenging when you’re talking about living in an environment with 40
or 50 people.”
With schools and communal areas closed and families
largely confined to their rooms, Dove fears “it’s like a powder keg”
ready to explode. She and the family-services staff are constantly
communicating with families about their needs and reevaluating support
systems to stave off as many potential problems as possible.
who says she always tries to focus on the good even in the most dire
situations, is proud of her staff, who are working tirelessly and taking
on even more responsibilities. She has also seen community agencies put
aside past differences to work together effectively.
“We’re [also] thankful that utilities have stopped their
shut-offs, because that’s a big driver of families who come to us
experiencing homelessness,” she said. And with the courts postponing new
eviction cases, she has not seen an increase in homelessness.
“So, we’re sort of holding our breath right now. ... But, we don’t know what the next six months will hold.”
During these uncertain times, the team at Crossroads feels confident in the steady hand that’s guiding them.
“She’s been outstanding,” said Wilcox of Santilli. “No surprise there. She’s been a calm, thoughtful and supportive leader.
really shine when they’re under extreme pressure. It’s when a diamond
is formed,” said Dove. “Karen has been amazing. She always puts our
clients and our staff at the forefront of what we do and how we make
For this Rhode Island native, it’s about navigating the day-to-day while always keeping her eye on the horizon.
truly want to be able to say that we really did everything in our
power,” said Santilli, “and that I did everything in my power as leader
of this organization, to keep people as safe and healthy and to get
through this crisis as best we could.”
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