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COVID-19 pandemic has Delaware homeless shelters facing shortages. Winter isn't waiting

Jeanne Kuang
Delaware News Journal

Nonprofits and advocates across Delaware are rushing to set up emergency shelter space as a difficult year for the state’s homeless is expected to turn into an even harder winter.

They’re facing an unforgiving deadline amid community spread of the coronavirus that shows no signs of slowing down. Temperatures in Wilmington are forecast to sink below 30 degrees this week for the first time since March.

Statewide, most emergency shelters have operated at about half-capacity since the pandemic began, to allow for sufficient distance between beds.

Those kinds of restrictions are likely to make it harder for operators of winter-only shelters – ordinarily used to squeezing in an extra family on a cold night – to house everyone who will need it.

In northern Delaware, plans to open up more beds for the winter hinge on New Castle County’s effort to convert the Sheraton hotel near New Castle into an emergency shelter. County officials used federal coronavirus relief money to buy the building at auction for $19.5 million last month and hope to open the shelter in December.

A man walks under I-95 in Wilmington as people without housing were surveyed last year in an annual state-wide count.

“This winter is going to be like no other winter we’ve had,” said Carrie Casey, manager of New Castle County Department of Community Services, who is spearheading the conversion.

DETAILS: Why New Castle County is spending $19.5 million to buy a hotel off I-95

Under normal circumstances, nonprofits in each county activate “Code Purple” on cold winter nights, opening additional space usually in participating churches. 

This year, Casey plans to allow the county’s Code Purple operator, Friendship House, to operate out of the hotel, where individual rooms would be safer than a congregating setting. The county also plans to contract with a social service provider to work out of the hotel, finding residents more permanent housing.

“It’ll be comprehensive, every night, 24 hours,” she said. “That's what we plan on running the very first day we can open.”

Stephanie Kardos said she could use a service like that. 

The 37-year-old woman has been staying on the streets in Wilmington since August, when a dispute got her and her husband thrown out of his family member’s house, where the couple had been living. 

Kardos lost a part-time job as a restaurant hostess in March, during the first round of pandemic-related shutdowns. The $88-a-week unemployment checks she receives in lieu of a paycheck is barely enough to cover food and a phone, let alone rent a room. The couple spent every night “trying to find places where nobody will bother us.”

Stephanie Kardos, 37, has been living on the streets since August. She is pictured at the St. Patrick's Center in downtown Wilmington, where she goes for some basic necessities such as a shower.

Many shelters aren’t accepting new clients during the pandemic. Calls to the state service centers seeking a motel voucher have gone unreturned. 

With her husband recently hospitalized, she and a friend stayed a night last week at the Sunday Breakfast Mission, a crowded downtown shelter often described by the homeless as a last resort. 

BACKGROUNDDelaware's homeless change housing again as coronavirus hotel stays begin to expire

When they returned the next night, she said they were told the director had banned them with no explanation. Kardos suspects another resident had a personal conflict with her, though she said she had kept to herself.

She resigned herself to another few nights outside, on the Wilmington Riverfront.

“It’s getting colder and colder,” she said.

Shelter operators still have much to set up before the hotel can open, chief among them a way to bus or shuttle clients to the Sheraton, which sits on marshland off I-95 and Airport Road. 

New Castle County is converting the Sheraton Wilmington South Hotel to an emergency homeless shelter this winter

Kim Eppehimer, executive director of Friendship House, said the group is considering setting up shuttle pickup sites in Newark and Wilmington. 

Then there’s the question of whether still more space will be needed. The hotel has 192 rooms, while Eppehimer said the county’s Code Purple shelters have housed 250 to 300 people on very cold nights in the past. 

One added benefit of the hotel is the ability for clients to find “daytime reprieve,” Eppehimer said.

The pandemic has brought shutdowns to day centers, coffee shops, libraries and other places the homeless commonly seek shelter, especially in downtown Wilmington where the Sunday Breakfast Mission closes its doors to residents early in the morning. 

BACKGROUND:Wilmington's homeless shut out of libraries, cafes, day centers in coronavirus crisis

Marvell Richardson, of New Castle, said many Sunday Breakfast Mission residents like himself have been spending their days during the pandemic “randomly walking around, looking for anything to keep me occupied.” 

That includes odd jobs when he can find them. Other times, like on a recent afternoon, it just means sitting on the sidewalk with a group of other men outside the nonprofit, waiting for it to open again.

“Some of us won’t make it through this winter,” another shelter resident said.

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In Kent and Sussex counties, winter shelter operators plan to forge ahead with their existing network of churches and other congregate sites — with either dividers or more distance between beds and a prescreening of clients for COVID-19 symptoms prior to assigning a bed. 

Advocates in both counties said they’re worried about having enough capacity. The number of sites available — eight in Sussex and two in Kent — is down from previous years because some churches aren’t providing the space during the pandemic.

Already wary of fire marshal rules that limit occupancy in buildings without sprinklers, shelter operators now must also consider how many can be housed without increasing the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

St. Patrick's remains open with precautions in place despite the threat of coronavirus. People that attend free breakfast Tuesday are asked to use hand sanitizer before getting food and coffee.

“We're all going to do whatever we can do to help people,” said Ennio Emmanuel, president of Code Purple of Kent County. “We’re very aware we probably won’t be able to take in as many people as before.”

Another challenge is having enough volunteers, said Susan Kent, director of Love-Inc. Of Mid-Delmarva, which runs Code Purple in Sussex County. The winter shelter operations are almost entirely dependent on retired volunteers, many of whom are vulnerable to the virus and must stay home this year.

“We always are working on the fringes,” Kent said. “It’s a massive volunteer organization. We run on that, and that’s been destroyed.”

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Statewide, all shelter operators said they hoped to rely on the state to place clients in motel rooms if they tested positive for the virus or if additional beds are needed this winter. 

Delaware State Housing Authority, the city of Wilmington and New Castle County are collectively shoring up their coronavirus relief funds to provide at least $3 million for motel placements.

The state currently has close to 600 households, including 258 households with children, placed in motel rooms or referred to emergency shelters, according to Jill Fredel, spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Social Services. 

For Kardos, the Wilmington woman, any indoor place to sleep can’t come soon enough. 

Living outside has become untenable, even before the temperatures dropped this week. 

Her phone was stolen on a recent night. On another, she was sitting at a bus stop when an assailant started groping her. She fought him off, she said. 

“I’m scared,” she said, through tears. “They know I’m by myself. Women are out here, vulnerable. How do you allow a woman to be out in this cold?”

Contact Jeanne Kuang at jkuang@delawareonline.com or (302) 324-2476.