Janet Idema, Immanuel Shelter founder and board president, said ignorance is among the top barriers in Sussex County when it comes to homeless issues.
She said people think all homeless people are predators, involved in the legal system and addicts, but, she said, that is not true. She said people's attitudes need to be readjusted. “We are too damn nice about homelessness. Change is messy and we can't always be nice,” she said.
Idema joined Rachel Stucker, Housing Alliance Delaware assistant director, and Marie Morole, Crisis House executive director, as speakers during an April 9 town hall meeting on homelessness sponsored by The Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice at Trinity Faith Christian Center, Lewes.
All agreed that among the toughest barriers to overcome are prejudice and misconceptions. They also agreed that housing and transportation are substantial barriers.
Face of homeless changing
The three speakers said it's a misconception that homeless people stay in the same shelter for extended periods of time. Idema said the majority of guests, as she calls them, stay less than a month at the Code Purple shelter. Nearly half stay about a week.
She acknowledged there are chronic homeless people, but most eventually end up in housing. She said about 80 percent are homeless less than one year.
Idema said they have some success stories but, she added, it's nearly impossible to turn someone's life around in 30 days. “We see a lot of issues with limited support services. Our mission is to provide safe, overnight housing so people don't freeze,” she said.
She said 17 people housed at the shelter have found new jobs.
At Crisis House, stays can be up to 90 days, Morole said, which gives staff more time to provide services.
They said shelters are seeing a shift in clientele including more elderly people with health issues, families and single men with children.
Morole said there are a variety of reasons people seek out Crisis House including drug and alcohol issues, mental health issues, domestic abuse and loss of a job, spouse or house. She said for some, the choice to fix a car so they can work could mean they can't pay rent and they lose their apartment.
Shelter construction is blocked
Three local shelter projects in Sussex County over the past seven years have been denied by courts or county officials. Two shelters have been proposed by Immanuel Shelter.
Housed in Faith United Methodist Church fellowship hall in Rehoboth Beach, Immanuel Shelter is a Code Purple shelter open from Dec. 1 until early April. This year, the shelter provided a safe place to sleep and a hot meal each night for about 90 men and women.
Idema said Immanuel Shelter staff and volunteers have been trying to create a broader Code Purple network in the county with limited success. “We've been fighting homeless issues for 10 years and the newest fight has been to open a church on Route 9. That was blocked in court by a technicality,” she said. “We have lost the ability to use our building.”
The shelter purchased the former John Wesley United Methodist Church in Belltown near Five Points last April. A plan to open a homeless shelter on the parcel was approved in June 2017 by the Sussex County Board of Adjustment. However, after nearby residents filed a lawsuit, Sussex County Superior Court overturned the decision; Delaware Supreme Court upheld the lower court's ruling.
Idema said the board has not given up and will eventually file a conditional-use application with the county for the shelter at the church.
In another case, a plan to open a shelter on Hebron Road in West Rehoboth was denied in January 2016 by the board of adjustment.
Morole said a proposed building project for a new shelter less than two blocks from the current Crisis House in Georgetown was denied seven years ago by Georgetown Town Council based on complaints from residents who said they didn't want the shelter in their neighborhood. “I told them we are already there and only moving 1 ½ blocks down the street,” she said. “It's another example of ignorance.”
She said the shelter had spent $50,000 on prep work and architectural and engineering fees. “It's $50,000 we don't have today,” she said.
Crisis House has provided services and shelter to homeless individuals and families for more than three decades. Crisis House offers a variety of programs including transitional housing units and case management and life skills training.
Stucker said homeless people have basic human needs – sleeping or sitting in public areas – but these behaviors are becoming crimes that force them into the criminal justice system. “And a lot of localities are passing more restrictive nuisance laws to criminalize homelessness,” she said.
As an example, Georgetown officials recently enacted an ordinance making it illegal to camp in town limits.
Idema said some people who come to the Code Purple shelter enter without a criminal record and leave with one. “It's simple stuff, but it feeds into people not getting employment,” she said.
130 people each night in Sussex
Stucker said the goal of her organization is to help end homelessness in Delaware. “We see that as doable and achievable,” she said.
She pointed to the success the alliance has had in its effort to spearhead a drive to end veterans' homelessness. Since 2015, the number of homeless vets on any given night has dropped from 100 to 120 to 40 to 45. “Forty is still too many, but we have made a lot of progress,” she said.
Stucker said on any given night in Delaware, about 1,000 people are homeless, which means they are sleeping on the streets or in tents, cars, sheds or shelters. About 130 people in Sussex County are homeless each night.
In all, she said, as many as 3,500 people are homeless each year in the state.
Stucker said a new point-in-time count will be conducted in Sussex County during the summer to get a more accurate count homeless people. The annual statewide count is done every January.
She said the number of homeless people in Sussex County can change dramatically in the summer as people move into the area looking for seasonal jobs.
Affordable housing, even for the working poor, is a growing concern.
Stucker said the increase in the cost of housing is far outpacing wage increases, especially in eastern Sussex, creating a widening gap and demand for affordable housing and rental units.
Morole said finding housing for people who transition out of Crisis House is the toughest barrier they face. Thanks to a grant, she said, they have a staff member assigned to locating housing, creating an inventory and sharing it with other agencies. “We are looking for the hidden housing market of rooms and apartments. We are trying to find those places,” she said.
Locating places close to where people work is another issue, she said.
Stucker said a Sussex resident must make $17.31 per hour to afford a typical two-bedroom apartment. A minimum-wage employee would need to work more than 80 hours per week to afford an apartment. That wage is the 15th highest in the United States.