A Brave New Home

Illustration by Rich Lillash.

Why a longtime banker launched a new career to “serve our veterans.”

Every year on the Sunday before Christmas, Vince Santilli C’84 would arrive at Homes for the Brave with his fellow Knights of Columbus, care packages in tow. He’d been organizing these visits since 2002, toting bags filled with playing cards, back scratchers, toothbrushes, and coffee mugs from room to room.

“We just brought things that were intended to brighten the veterans’ days,” Santilli says. That’s who the Bridgeport, Connecticut, nonprofit institute serves: people who are experiencing homelessness, almost all of them veterans.

When he wasn’t acting as “the Knight Before Christmas,” as he says people began calling him, Santilli worked a few blocks away as an executive at People’s United Bank. Today he can see that bank building from his new office—the one inside Homes for the Brave, where he has served as CEO and executive director since 2016.

“I’ve only gone a few blocks,” he says, “but certainly it’s an entirely different world.”

Why did a career-long banker ditch the corporate suite to run a niche nonprofit? “Maybe I was meant to be here,” he says. Inspired by his dad, who had fought in World War II, he’d planned to enroll at West Point. But his medical exam revealed a hearing issue, so Santilli instead attended Penn, which then led him into banking. “I think Homes for the Brave has become my opportunity to serve our country and our veterans,” he says.

In just seven years, he’s more than doubled the organization’s budget (from $1.7 million in 2016 to $3.6 million in 2023) and added three more housing facilities, for a total of six. Under Santilli’s leadership, Homes for the Brave serves dozens of veterans on any given day through four transitional housing facilities, one permanent house, and a drop-in annex space. Most of these veterans are dealing with substance-abuse issues or mental-health struggles, on top of their lack of housing. A significant number have just left prison. Homes for the Brave helps them find permanent homes while also offering mental-health support, addiction services, vocational programs, and job-search assistance.

“The needs are there,” Santilli says. “So many of them are struggling. We’re happy to be meeting those needs and giving our veterans clean and safe facilities to get them back on their feet.”

“And we have some incredible success stories,” he adds. Romano Dickey, a former resident of Homes for the Brave who is now its director of maintenance, is one of them. Dickey arrived at Homes for the Brave around the same time Santilli became its leader. It was Dickey’s third time there, and he’d come back determined to conquer his addiction, stay out of prison, and change his life for good. “They helped get me a job, they helped get me an apartment, and they practically turned my whole life around,” Dickey says, “because my life was messed up when I came here.”

Santilli watched as Dickey put in the work and became a model resident. When Dickey was preparing to leave, Santilli hired him—first as a house monitor, and now as head of maintenance. “That sends a message to the men and women that are with us now,” Santilli says. “This guy was in jail like I was. He had a substance addiction that he was able to overcome and I can do that, too. He’s a role model and he’s a beacon of hope.”

While helping those around him change for the better, Santilli says he hasn’t changed much himself, from one career to another. “I was somebody who always had a lot of compassion for people,” he says. “My college roommates—my Penn pals, as I call them—would probably tell you I’m the exact same person I was when I was 18.”

“He’s exactly the same person,” confirms Richard Bilotti W’84, his friend of 44 years. “Vince always took the optimistic point of view on everything. He still does. He had his own set of nicknames for everybody. He still uses them. And he was very religious then and is still very religious today.”

Santilli’s parents were Catholic, but he says their attendance at Mass was sporadic. His wasn’t. He remembers, at 14 years old, putting on nice clothes and riding his bike to church alone on Sundays. “I can’t explain that to you,” he says. “It just felt like it was a comfortable place for me.”

When he arrived at Penn, he quickly found his way to the Newman Center, where he remained involved and active throughout his years on campus. Bilotti remembers Santilli convincing their friends to join him for Mass and dinner at Roy Rogers on Sunday nights. Bilotti had already pivoted away from Catholicism, “but for those four years, I went to Mass,” he says, “because Vince said we should go.”

“In an understated way, the man is extremely persuasive,” Bilotti adds. “He has a remarkable ability to gain people’s loyalty. I can’t identify what it specifically is about him that causes people to gravitate towards him, but I do think he’s very earnest. What he says is what he means. And he’s never halfway on anything.”

That includes his fitness. Bilotti recalls Santilli working out in the gym while “I was generally working off a hangover,” and these days Dickey notices how “he moves likes he’s young,” jogging to his office if he needs to take a call.

“I’ve always had a lot of energy,” admits Santilli, who played briefly on the sprint football team at Penn (and played racquetball right before this interview with the Gazette). Maybe that’s why, as so many of his friends have been entering retirement or semi-retirement, Santilli launched a whole new nonprofit career on top of an assistant coaching gig for the University of Bridgeport’s NCAA Division II women’s basketball team. He also coaches soccer in the local Special Olympics and is still active with the Knights of Columbus.

“As long as I have the energy and the vigor to be able to do all these things, I’ll work as hard as I can for as long as I can,” he says, “and serve others to the extent I’m able to.”

When he looks to the future of Homes for the Brave, Santilli hopes to focus more on permanent housing for veterans. He envisions a community of tiny homes, 40 or 50 of them, each about 350 to 400 square feet, arranged in a ring with a community center in the middle for fitness equipment, laundry facilities, a cafeteria, and case-management support.

“It’s so difficult for them to find clean, safe and affordable housing, and I think this really could work,” he says. “So that, God willing, is our next frontier.”

—Molly Petrilla C’06

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