When a man is severely burned in a homeless encampment, it grabs our attention. The fact that he did not have a home and was living out in the woods may surprise us less: In Delaware, that’s relatively commonplace.
The encampment in a woods off Douglas Street in Georgetown briefly ended up in the spotlight last week after emergency responders were called out for a fire. They found a badly burned man and a nearby campsite ablaze, and the man was taken to a burn center in Pennsylvania in critical condition.
This comes less than two years after four people died in a homeless camp in Stanton in northern Delaware. Authorities suspected they died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a propane heater.
Tragedies like these serve as a reminder of people living without shelter in Delaware. Statistics in the state show a need that is more acute than ever. But at the same time, those fighting homelessness offer hope that more can be done to meet that need.
How bad is the situation?
Only minutes away from the site of the fire is an emergency shelter called Crisis House, which offers 10 beds. Just before Thanksgiving, it was full.
That’s a year-round reality. “We have peaks and lows I guess, but we stay full all the time,” Maggie Glick, head case worker and site supervisor at the shelter, said. It’s one of the few shelters in southern Delaware that’s open 24/7, 365 days a year. According to Housing Alliance Delaware, Sussex County only has 25 shelter beds available year-round.
“For the majority of people, you’re not getting into a shelter here in Sussex because there are no beds available,” Nikki Gonzalez, director of Code Purple in Sussex County, said. Code Purple is an organization that coordinates additional emergency overnight shelter each winter, usually at churches.
In the year from July 2020 to June 2021, Housing Alliance Delaware's Centralized Intake, which coordinates shelter for people in need of housing in the state, received 9,355 calls from people in a housing crisis, including those without safe shelter or living in other people’s homes.
That’s according to Housing Alliance Delaware’s annual report. The group also, once a year, counts everyone in the state living without a home on a given night in January. This year, the tally was 1,579, a jump of about 400-500 from previous years, even though the alliance only counted people in shelters and not those living in encampments or elsewhere. (This number included people staying in motel rooms provided by the state during the pandemic). In Sussex County, about 465 people were getting shelter that night.
Code Purple in Sussex helps about 250 to 275 people every winter season, Gonzalez estimated.
Gonzalez said unlike in large cities where people without homes can be seen out on the streets, in southern Delaware they can be more out of sight. Encampments like the one in Georgetown are all around, sometimes in surprising places like behind the store where you shop for groceries. These encampments move from time to time since they’re illegally located on private property.
“There’s pockets everywhere,” she said.
Sarah Rhine, policy director at Housing Alliance Delaware, said homelessness is up around the country, not just in Delaware, but the state is fairly unique in that many of those accounting for the increase are families with children.
“Anecdotally, we’re hearing and seeing more homeless encampments in the state at this time this year than we did last year,” Rhine said. “And we’re also seeing more folks calling our hotline and saying that they’re unhoused so … there is a growing problem in our state.”
In October, Rhine said in a followup email, the Alliance received calls from 381 households reporting they were sleeping outside in a car or other unsheltered place.
And now it’s getting cold again.
“I think everyone is worried that if what we see right now, in November, is an increase in unsheltered homelessness, that we’re not heading for a good winter,” Rhine said.
What's causing so much homelessness?
Addiction and mental health problems are well documented drivers of homelessness, especially with an opioid crisis that has devastated people in all walks of life. Both problems often come with stigma and stereotyping.
But Rhine also pointed to a housing crunch, a problem she thinks is part of the reason for the increase in homelessness among families with children.
“There just aren’t enough affordable rental units in the state,” she said, and it’s starting to affect people higher up the income ladder.
From 2000 to 2019, according to the Housing Alliance’s data, rent went up 103.2 percent in Sussex County, far more than the rest of the state, although it spiked plenty in Kent and New Castle as well. Income went up during that time too, but not nearly enough to keep pace (65.4 percent). A Sussex County resident now needs to make $18.56 an hour to afford housing, the Alliance estimates.
Supply and demand is one culprit. The state comes up almost 20,000 rental units short of what’s needed for extremely low income residents, per estimates from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
In a perfect world, developers would see the need and rush to fill it, being assured of a market. But it’s more complicated than that, and the will of local voters and their elected officials affect what kind of housing is acceptable in a neighborhood.
“No one wants affordable housing,” Gonzalez said, “... We’re getting a lot of people moving in here that don’t want, necessarily, low income housing around.”
Connecticut, a state with similar zoning issues as Delaware, tackled these issues head on in its most recent legislative session, Rhine said, with ordinances that increase allowable density of housing, reduce parking restrictions and allow for smaller housing units.
There are other factors that leave people without shelter. According to Gonzalez, one reason some people might end up in encampments like the one in Georgetown is that they are with a significant other, and unwilling to split up to go to a shelter with rules like separate accommodations for men and women.
Gonzalez was also frank about the dire mental health issues and struggles with addiction behind some of the homelessness.
Not all, but many of the chronically homeless people she works with do deal with mental health or addiction issues, she said. “Whether you know, the chicken or the egg kind of thing, which came first, mental health or the addiction or homelessness, who knows,” she said. But people carry trauma into homelessness, and then the homelessness only increases it. She also pointed to a lack of resources to help with mental health.
People’s choices may not make much sense when they are addicted. But Gonzalez said, “Your brain literally changes when it’s addicted to a substance.”
“People want to say, ‘Oh, those addicts, oh, they just want to use their drugs,” Gonzalez said. “Well, it’s so much bigger than that. There’s so many more facets to it that you can’t put it in one category. Like the Douglas Street camp, it probably has many of those circumstances combined.”
Even if there are people who aren’t ready to receive help, she said, “you have to let someone try every time they’re ready.”
Joseph Holder, a case worker at the Crisis House in Georgetown, said he has worked at the shelter for years and has seen a range of reasons for homelessness.
“There is no standard typical thing like (a gambling problem),” he said. “I’ve seen every kind of person here. I mean, obviously a lot of addiction and mental health issues, that’s common problems in general, but people that come into a shelter are every type from every background.”
The cook at the Crisis House, Alysa Tosson, said she got involved because she has experienced homelessness herself. She helps where she can. “I am the cook, but I also interact with (residents) and lead them in a positive way.”
“Not everybody is what people think of when they think of 'homeless,'” Gonzalez said.
To make it more complicated, the urgent worries of living without a home can make it harder to get out of the situation. When you’re worried about where you’re going to eat and sleep, and where you can keep your belongings so they don’t get stolen, you can’t think about getting a job, Gonzalez said.
Are there solutions?
It seems like I could write almost the same story every year after the Housing Alliance’s annual count: Homelessness is still here and it’s still a big problem. So can real change happen or are we doomed to another dismal report this January and the one after that?
Advocates say change can happen, and while there are a lot of potential strategies, they point to one main need: More resources.
Gonzalez said she doesn’t think there’s a way to totally eliminate homelessness — someone will always need help — but there are things that can be done.
“We need more affordable housing, we need more shelter space, we need more mental health resources. We need rehab that lasts more than seven to 30 days. You’re not changing in seven to 30 days; you need a long term, at least a year program.”
She also said group homes could be a significant solution, allowing for more one-on-one help. “I think every church should have a group home that they run,” she said, although she recognized the real-world difficulties of that.
One change that has happened is that people are more aware of the problem than they used to be, Rhine said. For her part, she argued for using federal money available through the American Rescue Plan to combat homelessness. Sussex County, for example, has not yet allocated its rescue funds, she said.
Adding more housing could be done very quickly through developers or organizations like Habitat for Humanity, she said, and it’s a once in a lifetime chance. “We could bring hundreds of affordable housing units online in the next 12 months. … We have the money and the power to address that problem. And we should be.”
Rhine applauded local leaders in the area for taking the issue seriously. Sussex County Council has been looking at the issue of affordable housing for some time, and Rhine said she’s really happy about its new housing trust fund to promote more units. Still, she said, it’s a small amount of money at $500,000. (They’re aware of her feelings, as she’s on the advisory board for the project).
News outlets also recently reported on Georgetown’s approval for a nonprofit to move forward on temporary shelter housing in partnership with a company called Pallet.
Rhine emphasized that she thinks more permanent solutions are also necessary, but lauded Georgetown for trying to address the needs of people in homeless encampments.
“A lot of jurisdictions try to either ignore the issue, or arrest their way out of it. Georgetown is doing neither,” Rhine said, noting that emergency shelter is a big need.
“There are solutions, and I think now is a time where we have the resources and the political will,” she said.
A few ways to help
Code Purple Sussex recently put out a call for more than 100 volunteers to provide basic coverage during the season, which runs from Dec. 1 to March 15. As of now, Gonzalez said, more volunteers are still needed. Volunteers help with tasks like intake, overnight work, morning relief, cleanup and laundry. Find out more at codepurplesussexcounty.com.