Homeless camps dot Sussex County, hidden in patches of woods and tucked away behind businesses. The county has about 150,000 homes, per the latest census, but some people still don’t have a roof overhead.
Existing shelters in the county offer about 25 to 28 beds year-round, according to the Housing Alliance of Delaware. Meanwhile, homelessness is becoming a more pressing issue amid housing shortages.
But plans are in the works for another shelter here that would add 50 more year-round beds and try to help people get out of the cycle of homelessness for good.
Redemption City is the longtime dream of Nikki Gonzalez, who has served for years as the director of Code Purple Sussex County, a faith-based organization that coordinates emergency overnight shelter. Now she and a team are trying to develop a more long-term solution based on what they’ve learned in their work.
Programs like Code Purple do meet emergencies, but they have a different function. Code Purple volunteer Jay Duke, who is part of the team planning Redemption City, said the emergency shelter is only during winter and “you’re just there to make sure people don’t freeze at night. So there’s not a whole lot of followup.”
While the shelter is still a dream – there is no building as of yet – Gonzalez and her team are moving from planning phase to raising support to make it a reality as soon as they can. They’re considering the Seaford area.
“I want to keep it in Sussex County because we only have two shelters … it’s ridiculously low,” Gonzalez said. “So I would love to add 50 beds to that. I think that would be a great help.”
The project means Gonzalez will be moving on from her work with Code Purple. She said this is her last year with the organization.
The need for a shelter
There are a lot of reasons people end up without shelter, and the problem seems to be getting worse in Delaware.
Sarah Rhine, policy director at Housing Alliance Delaware, told the Independent last fall that homelessness is up around the country, not just in Delaware.
“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.”
Rhine said in an email Tuesday that last year the organization got around 100 to 200 calls monthly from households in Sussex County seeking shelter. Their annual count of homelessness in Delaware usually happens in January, but was delayed this year.
The Housing Alliance says the cost of housing in Delaware is rising much faster than incomes, and also there's a supply problem: There just aren’t enough affordable options.
The opioid epidemic and addiction in general continue to take a toll as well.
Jay and Beth Duke have felt that personally. Jay serves as a board member for Redemption City, and his wife Beth is treasurer. They lost their son to an overdose in 2015, which is part of what drew them to this work, Jay Duke said.
“We’ve got kind of a soft spot for the people in need like that,” he said. He has also built relationships over the years with people who have lost their homes through his work with Code Purple in Seaford.
“Lots of the guys that we have in Code Purple have been there year after year,” he said. “And some of 'em are one and done, but there’s a few that just keep cycling back through.” With Redemption City, he hopes to help them break out of that cycle.
The vision for Redemption City
Over her eight years with Code Purple, Gonzalez has worked with all kinds of people and seen all kinds of needs. Her vision now is for a shelter that helps people who are ready for change to embrace personal responsibility and get on track for the long term. It will offer not only a place to stay, but life and job training and connection with resources they can use.
“These are the pieces that I’ve seen over the years, that we just couldn’t dive into with Code Purple, because … there’s no time to really invest into them like we can if they’re living there full time,” she said.
The shelter will focus primarily on people who are at a place where they are sober and ready to put in the work for long-term change.
“I don’t think you’re going to thrive any other way,” Gonzalez said.
That doesn’t mean the shelter won’t serve those with emergency needs like a mental health or addiction crisis. She plans to have about five emergency beds to help people with pressing needs, and then refer those people to places to get help and some initial stability. But the intent of the shelter is supporting change.
“As long as you’re working on your life, you can stay here,” Gonzalez said of the future shelter. “... It’s going to be very tailored to the person. Some people might need just a couple weeks to save up their money that they’re working with. Some people might need a lot more investment. And we’re OK with that. As long as we see progress.”
It can be hard for people who are struggling to get back on their feet, Duke said, especially if they get caught up in the legal system and are dealing with issues like probation. They may lose their driver’s license, or their income.
“It’s hard to get out of,” Duke said.
He spoke of building relationships as one of the rewarding aspects of his work over the years.
“They’ve been beaten up enough … they’re not going to get any judgment from me,” he said. “I’m going to be there and we’re going to treat you with some dignity and respect.”
Renee Parker, secretary for the organization (among other roles), has past experience working with people in the criminal justice system dealing with mental health issues and addiction. She’s seen first-hand how hard it can be finding shelter for people in southern Delaware.
She’s also seen people who were doing well end up in trouble again. For example, they may feel so good on their medication that they stop taking it and end up on a downward spiral.
The point of Redemption City is to intervene in that downward spiral, educate people, and support them in maintaining a new lifestyle and being self sufficient so they can move on, Parker said.
Parker said working with the court system she saw some of the barriers people face, like insurance putting limits on treatment, or program rules and court requirements. She, too, said she’s excited to work on offering help that’s more long-term.
One barrier the organizers are trying to remove is people’s reluctance to get help because of attachment to their animal friends. Some people stay out of shelters because they can’t bring their pet along.
“They will not come in,” Gonzalez said. “I have seen it so many times.”
Unique to Sussex County, this shelter will offer pets a place to stay as well. Gonzalez’s daughter Cecelia, who is passionate about animals and once worked at an animal shelter, will help handle that side of things.
“She just naturally has that animal love and ability, and she's great with them,” Gonzalez said.
Redemption City is a registered nonprofit and Gonzalez has gathered a support group of board members and staff. There’s still a lot to do before they open their doors, starting with buying some doors to open.
Once they have a potential site, they still could face the hurdle many new shelters do: How the neighbors feel about a shelter moving in.
There’s also the money. Gonzalez has a target of raising around $3 million to purchase and prepare a property for the shelter, a hefty sum for a startup group. Then there will be the cost to keep operations running afterward.
To help with that, Gonzalez said they could use volunteers who can focus on fundraising and getting the word out about the new shelter.
Along with donors, the Redemption City team is looking for community partners like mental health professionals, or churches who might sponsor a bed or offer a venue for them to share about the new organization.
Gonzalez's vision is for a place people can "really get what they need so we can invest in them and so they can move on and invest in others."