Kent County homeless nonprofit ramps up service during pandemic, plans for more in 2021

Emily Lytle
Dover Post

When the coronavirus pandemic was first picking up momentum this spring, hundreds of those experiencing homelessness moved into hotels.

While the state paid for their stay, Code Purple Kent County – a nonprofit that serves the homeless and low-income families in Dover – quickly realized that many of these people were still going without meals.

So the organization stepped up. According to Ennio Emmanuel, director of Code Purple Kent County since July 2019, the nonprofit has served hundreds of thousands of meals this year.

Emmanuel and other volunteers would deliver and serve about 200 lunches and 200 dinners at the hotels in Dover, something the nonprofit has never done before. It is best known for providing emergency shelter when temperatures dip below 35 degrees, as well as operating a food and clothing pantry and other support services.

Ennio Emmanuel, director of Code Purple Kent County, holds a bag of supplies while in the food pantry at 1207 E. Division St.

“We want to always fill in the gaps,” Emmanuel said. “So, we look to not stop but to expand our services to be able to fill that need.”

Stepping up in crisis

As the pandemic turned everything upside down, it didn’t take much searching for Emmanuel to find more needs.

Part of that manifested as prevention efforts. The Delaware State Housing Authority partnered with Code Purple to allow Emmanuel to help people fill out applications for rent relief. He said he helped with 30 applications, granting people $8,000 in aid and fending off pending evictions.

“That prevents me from seeing those people in our shelters now,” he said.

For the people experiencing homelessness now, many people were left with nowhere to go when libraries closed and many fast food restaurants limited access, he said.

In reaction, Code Purple broke from its norm and opened its building at 1207 E. Division St. all day, allowing people to use the restrooms or showers.

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That building, next to Maranatha Life Changing Church, includes the food pantry, clothing pantry and a sanctuary shelter for up to 22 women and children. Anywhere from 30 to 80 people visit the pantries every day.

A second site at People’s Community Center at 46 S. Bradford St. provides shelter for up to 40 men. It also has a recently added commissary kitchen and other upcoming expansions, including showers.

Code Purple’s busiest season is when the weather gets more frigid, and last year it had five sites to support that effort. This year, though, many of the churches closed their shelters, primarily because their volunteers were older people at higher risk of getting sick from COVID-19.

With only two shelters left, this “put a lot of stress on us,” Emmanuel said, because they cannot, for example, house men with children in a place where 20% to 30% of the men are sex offenders or place a woman who might be a sex offender with other women who have children.

In these cases, the nonprofit can put the people up in hotels only, adding a new expense to an already thin budget.

Code Purple may also have to bear the burden if someone arrives at the shelter with COVID-19 symptoms, pushing them to move all residents into a hotel, but Emmanuel said he is working with different state agencies that will help provide support in that case if needed. 

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Other new financial burdens include cleaning supplies and temporary partitions that Emmanuel said cost about $2,000. More permanent plexiglass partitions are expected to be a $40,000 investment.

For reference, Code Purple’s yearly budget was about $8,000 when Emmanuel started.

In the start of the pandemic, Emmanuel partnered with the city to install portable toilets, and he is now looking to do the same with portable showers, which he said could cost $30,000.

New year goals

While this year has been stocked with challenges, Emmanuel remains hopeful as he looks toward 2021 and the projects in store.

He hopes the new year will bring the completion of a new rescue house for women and children. The home is under construction now next door to the 1207 E. Division St. site, and it will offer four bedrooms for homeless women, domestic violence victims and victims of human trafficking.

As development also continues at the People’s Community Center downtown, Emmanuel said another “great big goal” would be to launch the food truck, which will allow Code Purple to feed people during the day.

Kent County Levy Court Commissioner Allan Angel helps Code Purple serve lunches to the homeless this summer.

Right now, its two sites serve breakfast and dinner, but there are few options where homeless or low-income families can get daytime meals in Dover, Emmanuel said.

“Since there's not really a lot of places for the homeless people to go in the daytime, if they don't have jobs, [we’re] looking to use the food truck and the portable shower as a way to just pop up somewhere and have a little bit of resources to give them some ... peace,” he said.

Beyond the afternoon hours, Emmanuel said he hopes the food truck could serve as a fundraiser and allow the homeless to get involved and empower them to serve others, as well.

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Lastly, his third resolution is to start a program called Car Ride, in which someone can pay a $20 monthly membership for five rides a month. 

That way, if someone has financial limitations, wants to avoid waiting in the elements at an uncovered bus stop or is intoxicated, they can call and a licensed volunteer will take them where they need to go.

Emmanuel said he hopes this will also help amplify the voices of those in need and raise awareness about the income disparity that has only worsened this year since the pandemic.

In the new year, he said, “we need, as a community, to find different ways to empower our youth, and to empower people in those dreams, to be able to prevent ... this income disparity growing.”