Georgetown advocates bring new ideas to the table

The Georgetown Police Department, churches and nonprofits are joining forces to help the homeless.

“When I arrived in Georgetown, I was really struck by the homelessness,” said Chief R.L. Hughes. “But on the positive side, I was also struck by the amount of work that’s being done by nonprofits and faith-based organizations to help them.”

In late November, Hughes organized a meeting with A.C.E. Peer Resource Center, The Way Home Program, Shechinah Empowerment Center, Georgetown Presbyterian Church, Georgetown Wesleyan Church and Abundant Life Church to identify and share resources and ideas.

Homelessness has persistent challenges, but Hughes and others have ideas to overcome them.

Counting the homeless

Every year in January, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development conducts a “point in time” count of homeless people in 3,000 cities and counties across the country. This year, HUD found 994 in Delaware,  about 7 percent fewer than in 2016.

However, Jim Martin, formerly of the A.C.E. Peer Resource Center and a longtime advocate of the homeless in Georgetown, said one of the greatest challenges is measuring accurately.

“There’s no way to really understand how many there are because you can’t count invisible people,” he said. “They have one day in January where they count all the homeless people, but in Sussex especially, where they’re out in the woods, they just become invisible.”

Martin estimates there are about 300 homeless people in Georgetown alone. Chief Hughes recognizes the numbers problem.

“We don’t have good statistics, ‘we’ as in law enforcement,” he said. “When we arrest someone, we get their last known address, so that’s what shows up in the statistics, even if they haven’t lived there in years.”

Hughes has reached out to Delaware Criminal Justice Information System administrators to address that issue.

“They’re going to work on creating a drop box, so that if a police officer comes in contact with a homeless person they can mark that. Then we can start to identify just how big this problem is,” he said.

Providing shelter

Linda Williams helps the homeless through her job at A.C.E., offering peer assistance to the homeless, addicted or otherwise vulnerable and connecting them with resources. Her husband, Michael Williams, is the pastor at Georgetown Presbyterian Church. The two of them are making no small impact.

Georgetown Presbyterian is the only church in town that opens its doors to the homeless virtually every night. The Code Purple program, run by nonprofits, offers shelters  only when the temperature drops below freezing.

Michael Williams is at the church each night and morning to manage its guests. Occasionally, police come across a homeless individual in the middle of the night and he goes to the church to let them in. He requires each to sign an agreement, then turns out the lights, locks the doors and goes home.

“We couldn’t do it if we had to have someone stay with them,” Linda Williams said. “We’ve never had a problem.”

She credits Georgetown Presbyterian’s congregation for their good will - the church opens to the homeless nightly because the congregation voted to allow it.

“I’m so proud of our congregation,” she said. “They just approved building a shower in the fellowship hall, and that was a big step.”

Linda Williams went to Hughes’ meeting on behalf of A.C.E. and the church. She is excited about his ideas.

“I think our chief is very unique. He’s great,” she said. “He has some people on foot patrol and he wants them have a peer recovery coach with them, so if they see someone who needs help they can just help them right then and there.”

Those at Hughes’ meeting agreed that much of the homelessness in Georgetown is connected to the addiction epidemic. They’re hoping addicts will respond to peer counselors, individuals who have been successful in recovering. Peer counselors would provide information on local resources, and, according to Jim Martin, a compassion only those who have suffered through addiction can offer.

“These people have lost all hope,” he said. “Their peers would have a unique sensitivity.”

And Martin would know. He’s been helping people in need since he became sober himself, nine years ago.

Martin gained a reputation during his time at A.C.E., where he worked diligently to connect the needy to resources. He recently announced his resignation to embark on a new project called “God Goes Digital.”

“It’s a Facebook-based platform. I’m basically a reporter, using Facebook Live to bring attention to people in need, building awareness and encouraging the community to bolster support around people who share their story,” Martin said. “There’s accountability in that. People share their story because they’re willing to be held accountable, not because they’re looking for a handout.”

Martin seeks out the homeless and otherwise needy and asks them to appear on live video on the “God Goes Digital” Facebook page. In front of an audience, they talk about their struggles, their immediate needs and their faith.

“I want to know how God is working in their lives,” Martin said. “We ask for prayer requests and whatever is needed to get them through the day – food, transportation, whatever.”

Martin is supporting himself by asking for donations of $10 a month. He said his living costs are about $800 per month and that he doesn’t need any more.

“I figured I’d do a sponsorship kind of thing,” he said. “It’s free content, of course, but I need people willing to support my efforts. I’ve had a tremendous response.”

Hughes said he’ll likely meet with community homeless advocates again in January. In the meantime, he’s looking to fund his peer counselor idea.

“I’m actively seeking money for it,” he said. “Begging for it.”

The doors at Georgetown Presbyterian Church will remain open to the homeless.

“We can get grants for cots. We can get grants for food,” Pastor Michael Williams said. “What we really need is money to keep the heat on.”

And Jim Martin will continue to seek out the homeless and needy, publicize their plight and solicit help.

“This is a community problem,” he said. “And we can’t do it on our own.”