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Women in Action: Karen Santilli leads Crossroads RI amid virus threat

“At a time when lots of places are closing, and rightly so, we’re not,” says Santilli.

March 26, 2020

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.

Handling 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 their feet.

“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.”

But 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.

“This 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.

They’ve 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.

“Operations 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.

“Every 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.

In 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.

“At 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.

“If 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.”

Dove, who 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 shelters.

“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.

Santilli, 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.

“Folks 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 decisions.”

For this Rhode Island native, it’s about navigating the day-to-day while always keeping her eye on the horizon.

“I 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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