By LINDA BAKER
Katie DeSantis, 35, was homeless on and off for 20 years before she secured stable housing, earned a master’s degree, and began working for homeless service agencies.
“What drives me is to make sure that before I die, no child or person has to live the way I lived or the way I grew up,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis started work in January as a program specialist with the Joint Office of Homeless Services, a partnership between Multnomah County and the City of Portland.
“I’ve always been interested in policy,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis was 3 years old when her mother fled an abusive husband, plunging her and her sister into a precarious existence — couch surfing, the occasional six-month rental, and an unending cycle of homeless shelters in her native Minneapolis.
“I lived in every shelter that would accept families,” DeSantis said.
Disruption was a defining experience of her childhood.
“I have this vivid memory when I was a sophomore in high school — of sitting in the lobby of the homeless shelter. It was a phone lounge with one computer. Everyone and everything was swirling around me: people coming in and out, buses letting kids off, people leaving for the night shift.”
“I was still focused on school work, but feeling I shouldn’t have to deal with all this chaos.”
DeSantis knew from a young age that she wanted to work in homeless services. She started working for Head Start shelters in Minneapolis and later worked for the Hennepin County Office to End Homelessness, where she was a member of AFSCME Local 34.
In 2020, she joined the board of People Serving People, the largest homeless shelter in Minneapolis — and one of the shelters she lived in on multiple separate occasions as a child.
In her current role with Multnomah County, DeSantis reviews invoices, budgets and contracts to make sure that homeless service providers meet the terms of their contracts with the county — and improve outcomes for people experiencing homelessness.
“I make sure the contracts are realistic and providers can actually meet specific benchmarks and outcomes.”
“Data drives us,” DeSantis said. “So I’m also making sure providers collect the data that we need.”
The Joint Office contracts with nonprofits that provide shelter, mental health and addiction treatment services. The agency also conducts homeless street counts, manages its own facilities and monitors contractors that use local, state, and federal funds.
City and county commissioners have disagreed over the way the Joint Office dollars are spent ever since the office was created in 2016. The latest point of contention is the city’s plan to create mass camps for people experiencing homelessness. The county favors starting with permanent subsidized housing.
DeSantis moved to Portland last year, drawn by temperate winters and proximity to the ocean. She is still learning her way around the different homeless service agencies and proposed solutions for ending and mitigating the impacts of homelessness.
“But what I do know is that some of our policies just play to public sentiment of, ‘homelessness needs to be out-of-sight and out-of-mind.’ We don’t want to see tents when we’re walking down the street, and I understand that. But people are not choosing to be homeless, and I wish people had a lot more compassion.”
DeSantis holds a bachelor’s in sociology and gender studies from Gustavus Adolphus College and a master’s in public affairs from the University of Minnesota.
A new member of AFSCME Local 88, DeSantis believes unions hold special significance for members like her who struggle with mental health issues stemming from trauma and deprivation.
“Part of complex trauma is being hyper independent, and I tend to keep to myself and do a lot of things on my own. Knowing the union is there and someone has our backs — honestly, it’s pretty profound.”
DeSantis credits mentors such as her high school social worker and the former director of Children’s Defense Fund of Minnesota for helping her envision a path out of poverty and showing her that adults can care.
The desire to pay it forward, along with an enduring sense of optimism – “I don’t know where it comes from,” she laughs — marks her work today.
“Life is traumatic to begin with. Being homeless on top of that just adds so much more that is unnecessarily traumatic. I want people to have more chances than I did.”