Rhode Island’s homeless population will be especially vulnerable as temperatures remain cold, and space in local shelters is already in short supply.
Shelters swell past capacity in the winter months.
For Karen Santilli, head of Crossroads Rhode Island, which operates one of the state’s largest shelters, that can mean some people have to sleep in the dining hall at the nonprofit’s Providence headquarters.
“We don’t turn anybody away, particularly in the winter months,” Santilli said. “So we will just find space in our building, for them to stay.”
According to Santilli, on the coldest day in Rhode Island last year, the shelter used the dining hall and a common room to shelter nearly 100 men and women from the cold.
A report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development counted more than 1,000 homeless people in Rhode Island during January of 2017. Santilli expects the number of people experiencing homelessness this year to range between 3,000 and 4,000 people.
She’s also concerned about an uptick in the chronically homeless. Those are people who have been in and out of housing for more than a year. In Rhode Island, recent estimates put the number at more than 200 people.
“It’s the chronically homeless that need the most help, that cost the most to the system,” Santilli said. “They are the high users of rescue and hospital emergency rooms—they are our priority.”
For Santilli’s organization and others who provide services for the homeless, funding can be a significant challenge. Some of the funding sources that sustain these programs have been cut back in recent years, according to Santilli.
“We’re relying on the generosity of Rhode Islanders in helping with private donations to help cover the cost associated with these high numbers—particularly in the winter,” Santilli said.
Finding housing can be even harder for homeless people who have mental health issues, who, Santilli said, often refuse services.