Meetup: Homeless in Providence

By Jim Luken

Providence. The word is often associated with the word “Divine,”
as in Divine providence, the beneficent gifts of God, gifts that come—if only occasionally to all humans.

“Providence” also implies luck, of the good variety.

I am unashamedly a poor guy who lives in OTR and volunteers to write for my favorite paper, Streetvibes. By the providence of my younger daughter
Sarah’s generosity, I found myself recently flying to Providence, Rhode Island (RI) to meet up with my older son, David, a native Cincinnatian like me, who has been living along the Narragansett Bay near the city with his girlfriend Katie.

For five months of the year they live on a small 40 year-old sailboat they named “Lady Poverty,” for reasons that are too complicated to explain.

Before I left on the trip, I had decided to try to write an article for Streetvibes on the homeless situation
in the smallest state of the union, if possible.

There were problems. I had no car. I would have only a few days to do the research; and I knew almost nothing about getting around in this large metropolitan area.

Although located amidst a vacation-land by the ocean, Providence is a working class town (about the size of Cincinnati), with large ethnic minorities of Portuguese and Puerto Ricans.

My son fixed up an old bike for me, handed me a map, and pointed me toward downtown, where I was (relatively) certain to find the homeless population. I was soon to learn that in this city, finding the homeless might be more difficult than I had expected.

In the middle of town, I mentioned my Cincinnati roots to two motorcycle policemen, standing by their bikes near the bus station. They joked about Cincinnati’s motorcycle cops, whom—they had learned—didn’t ride in the wintertime. In a heavy Boston accent, one of them called our cops a name I can’t repeat here. They had no idea where the Coalition for the Homeless might be, and had never heard of Street Sights, the RI homeless newspaper. But they sent me to a nearby non-profit office where I got my bearings.

Several inquiries more and I was on my way to Crossroads Rhode Island, the largest homeless services agency in the state. I rode past the Dunkin’ Donuts Civic Center only to find myself lost again. I asked a slightly threadbare gentleman close to my age for additional directions and he sent me left from the crossroads where we stood. Then came a warning.

“I don’t think you want to go over there, buddy. There’s some bad people hang out around there.”

Without bothering to correct the stereotype, I headed down Broad Street to find a nine-story building
(the former YMCA) standing alone on a street corner near the expressway.

Lots of people, mostly white and Latino were milling outside the building.

I locked my bike and entered the cramped lobby, where 10 or 12 others were sitting or standing about. At the counter, I ask to speak to someone who might explain the local homeless situation. They handed me a phone.

The person at the other end was Karen Santilli, the Vice President of Marketing and Development at Crossroads.

She asks if I could come back at another time. I tell her I am on a bike, and that that might be difficult. So she agrees to talk to me in a conference room on the second floor.

“Give me ten minutes,” she says.

And I sit down with a copy of Street Sights, the local homeless newspaper. The 20-page paper is beautifully laid out, with lots of poems and pieces by homeless writers.

Santilli comes down and escorts me to a conference room upstairs, and—in about a half-hour’s time— she walks me through the facts and figures related to homelessness in Rhode Island, and to Crossroads itself, which is the primary provider of life services to homeless individuals and families—using the continuum-of-care model–for the entire state.

“Crossroads has its roots in a Traveler’s Aid organization that dates back to 1894,” Santilli said. “Eight years ago we moved in here, which was the former YMCA building. It was in dreadful shape.”

They remodeled the entire building which now provides 200 small apartments, and 14 efficiencies, each of which house individuals who were formerly homeless. The building also provides emergency shelter for as many as 100 individuals each night. I was amazed to learn that the emergency shelter’s doors stay open all day and all night, 365 days a year. There is no curfew.

“We provide storage lockers, so individuals can leave their belongings in order to look for work, as well as shower and laundry facilities,” Santilli said.

Crossroads provides permanent supportive housing for 57 families. And 15 more families are housed on an emergency basis.

Santilli says that Crossroads works with many other groups and agencies, but they are somewhat unique in that they are a comprehensive model with all services, including an outreach van, generated from the massive old “Y” building. She says that “a little” of their funding comes from the state and city. They receive
considerable corporate support, and $2 million in private donations annually.

When I suggested that folks from Cincinnati, might want to visit Rhode Island, and see how Crossroads functions, Santilli was quick to agree.

“Part of our vision is to become a national model in the way we provide continuum of care at many levels.”

After my interview, I went back downstairs to the tiny lobby outside the main desk at Crossroads. I needed to find a homeless person to share his or her story.

For my “Meetup” columns at Streetvibes, I often sit down for lunch at Our Daily Bread, open up a conversation
and then ask the person if he or she would like to be in the paper.

So I sat down on the bench in the lobby, said hello to several people, but was quickly turned down by both. I went outside and saw a man who had greeted me earlier when asking me about my old bike. The guy had long, curly gray hair streaming out from under a baseball cap.

“Are you homeless?” I asked.

“I was until I moved in here.”

“Are you willing to talk about it for the homeless newspaper in Cincinnati?”

“Okay. Why not?”

“Is there someplace where we can sit down for a few minutes?”

He looked around. Apparently Crossroads did not want people loitering, so there were no benches anywhere.

“We can go up to my apartment.”

“Great!” I said, happy to get a chance to see the conditions there close up.

I handed my driver’s license to the person at the front desk and we walked to the third floor apartment of 60 year-old Hector Gonzales. It was small, modern and very neat. We sat down at the kitchen table.

Hector ate some chips and salsa as he answered my question in a somewhat agitated manner, flailing his arms about and chopping the edge of his hand into the table.

Before coming to Crossroads, he had been homeless for a year and a half, following four or five other bouts with homelessness. At some point in the past he had been a pipe-fitter for ten years at the naval yard in Connecticut.

I asked him what was the worst thing about being homeless. This may have been the wrong question to ask in this instance.

“The worst thing is dealing with assholes,” he said, chopping the table hard. “Black, white, Spanish, Chinese. You meet all kinds of assholes. Pedophiles, rapists, macho-types. You meet all kinds. You gotta have twenty eyes.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he yelled, “I’d call Wall Street guys ‘assholes’ too.”

I asked him what the best thing in his life was.

“The best thing is that I found Christ. Any religion that condemns homosexuality.” Hector was gesturing wildly at this point.

“That’s a mortal sin. I don’t care what you say. I don’t believe in being racist, prejudiced against rich and poor. That’s just a way to escape, Everybody shits, you know. We get old. Things like that. Money’s shit. But money’s good. Don’t get me wrong, It don’t mean shit to me.”

My interviewee was certainly not at a loss for words. I asked if he had any plans.

“I’m too old to have plans. I just let God let me live as long as he wants. I’m not going to be a pussy for anything, anyone. I don’t let money rule my life.”

The phone in his apartment rings, and I can hear the woman at the desk tell Hector he has guests. I can tell he wants the interview brought to a quick close.

“Any thoughts to pass on to our readers?” I ask

“Yeah. If something bad happens to you, turn it into something positive. Let’s go!”

I follow him downstairs, where two attractive younger women are waiting. He lets me out of the door and welcomes the two women in.

“No wonder he wanted to end our little chat,” I think.

I am anxious to learn about the local homeless newspaper. I learn that the paper, like Streetvibes, comes out of the Homeless Coalition office, an advocacy group, located—I’m told—way across town. No one is sure exactly where.

I ask for a phone number, but no one can find one. Not even in the city’s directory. I am at a loss as to what to do.

“Wait a minute,” someone says. “Here’s Stan. He works for the paper. You can talk to him.”

Stan is Stan Kapelewski, a large man with a gray pony tail, also 60. He is on crutches, and has come to Crossroads to check the special mailbox for Street Sights, the local homeless newspaper. He tells me that he is the creative writing editor for the paper, and that they have a number of these boxes located around town for folks to submit their writing or comments.

I comment that this is a great idea.

Stan then comments that it is pure luck that I ran into him, in that there is no one from the paper at the Coalition office, except when they are laying out the newspaper, which is a monthly. He says that we can sit down at an office in the business district where homeless people gather in the mornings for coffee and conversation.

I follow Stan, myself with my bike, and Stan cruising on his crutches to a nice office about ten long blocks from Crossroads. He explains that Street Sights is, according to research, the only homeless newspaper in the world that is provided free to readers, and is produced entirely by volunteers.

I had noticed an absence of vendors in the city. Now I knew why.

“It creates a bit of a problem. We like the idea of it being a free, but it would be good for the homeless to make a few bucks. We haven’t figured out a resolution,” Stan explains.

We sit down at the George Hunt Center. A sign explains that folks can come and sit there in the morning for a maximum of fort-five minutes. Stan lays out his story in brief. He is a graduate of Syracuse University (Psychology/Philosophy) who, through a series of circumstances, found himself homeless from 2005 to 2009.

“I moved from shelter to shelter,” then to transitional housing. Now I have my own apartment with another formerly homeless guy.”

His life improved greatly, he says, after (public aid) finally agreed to pay for a hip replacement.

Mostly he wants to talk about the newspaper.

“It’s been around for four years, and I am a founding member. It’s work of the heart. We don’t even have a real office. In a sense, the paper itself is homeless,” Stan beams. “It is truly a work of the heart.”

Kapelewski’s heart is in the creative pages.

“What I love most about the paper is giving people their voice, and an opportunity to express themselves.”

He says he works 40-60 hours a week.

“I’ll work 20 more hours if I have to. We are not going to let this paper go down.”

We wrap up the interview, and I ask Stan if there is a decent place to get a cheap lunch in the area.

“Do you like Chinese?” he says. “The place next door is good. I’ll buy.”

I try to convince him to let me buy, but he insists. I can’t quite believe a homeless guy is paying for my lunch.

At the end of our meal, I crack open my fortune cookie. It reads: “Luck helps those who help themselves.”