Even as homeless shelters swell over capacity, social service workers are scrambling to get more people off the streets and out of the bitter cold.
Temperatures have plummeted into frostbite territory, and that makes the homeless population especially vulnerable. Outreach workers estimate there are some 1,000 people experiencing homelessness right now in Rhode Island.
Many are streaming into shelters, sleeping on the floors, in conference rooms, and in overflow spaces.
But many others are hesitant to go into the shelters, where they are forced into tight quarters with complete strangers, said Karen Santilli, head of Crossroads Rhode Island, which operates the largest shelter system in the state.
“So the job of our outreach workers is to get them to trust that they’ll be safe here, and that it’s the right decision for them, given how cold it is,” said Santilli, who spent Thursday morning trying to convince a man sleeping in an abandoned building to seek warmth and medical treatment.
Shelters in Newport and Providence say they’re housing people well over capacity, with many sleeping on mats on the floor. Santilli says more than five dozen people have slept in Crossroads’ overflow spaces during the recent cold snap.
“In Pawtucket we had to physically go and convince a man who was sleeping under a bridge that he needed to go into a hospital, to not freeze overnight,” said Camilo Viveiros, who works for the George Wiley Center in Pawtucket, a nonprofit providing services to low-income and homeless residents. “This is a life and death matter.
He says the weather should raise larger questions about how to help such individuals in Rhode Island.
“It’s really the time of year we have to think about the policies that are making it impossible for people to have stable housing and affordable utilities,” Viveiros said.