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

Jeanne Kuang
Delaware News Journal

First, he lived in a tent south of Wilmington. Then a hotel room downtown, and now a house in Newark — all in the span of a few months. 

The Wilmington man, who asked only to be identified by his first name Stefan, was one of hundreds of people housed in hotels by the state during the coronavirus pandemic, when health and social workers rushed to get the homeless off the streets and out of crowded shelters. 

Now, as the state reopens its economy and lift its stay-at-home restrictions, it's also moving the homeless out of their hotel rooms and into houses or treatment programs.

BACKGROUNDA Delaware hotel is helping house some of state's homeless residents amid coronavirus

To many of the people experiencing homelessness, Stefan said, the pandemic came as a strange "blessing in disguise."

But he doesn't expect it to last.

Though the health crisis helped expose the needs of Delawareans who live on the margins, state officials warn they have not been able to house every one of the state's roughly 1,000 homeless residents during the coronavirus crisis.

They likely won't be able to assist everyone who was given a hotel room into a more permanent unit either. A statewide affordable housing shortage is feared to have been exacerbated by the economic downturn.

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"This is not a homeless solution we’re working on, this is a coronavirus solution," said Department of Health and Social Services spokeswoman Jill Fredel in late May. "Alone we cannot solve the homeless issue."

State officials said in March that ideally, they would place everyone into housing during the pandemic. Health workers conducted screenings of the homeless population, then prioritized vouchers for those with greater health risks such as older people and families with children.

More than 1,000 people were given rental vouchers to stay in hotels during the pandemic, said Renee Beaman, director of the Division of State Service Centers. That figure includes some homeless people and some families whose members tested positive for coronavirus but were unable to isolate from others in their crowded homes.

Separately, another state division placed about 300 people into hotels throughout Delaware through a program that provides housing, in addition to mental health and substance abuse treatment for those who qualify.

The program included meals and on-site doctors for physical and mental health screenings, said Susan Holloway, associate deputy director of health, integration and social determinants for the state's Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health. 

The hotel, one of which was in downtown Wilmington, was an improvement over life on the streets, Stefan said, but some found it stifling. Multiple residents of the Wilmington hotel said two people who were given rooms there died during their stay. 

Fredel said the Department of Health and Social Services could not confirm details about possible deaths.

Outreach workers hand a bag of fresh food and package of Narcan, the opioid reversing medication, to a person staying in a motel on Route 13.

Beaman's division is now trying to place clients into apartments, with the help of local nonprofits and any state rental vouchers left. The state has given out 50% more vouchers than usual during the health crisis, Beaman said.

On Wednesday, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development announced it is granting Wilmington, New Castle County and the state a total of $4.2 million to assist with housing vouchers and homelessness relief.

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Holloway said her division is separately interviewing and placing mental health and substance abuse clients into voucher-funded housing or residential treatment programs, some of which were closed to new patients when the pandemic first took hold. 

"Not everyone at the end of the day may want to do this, but so far we’ve gotten a really good response," she said. "We knew that once the [statewide coronavirus] restrictions were going to start being lifted, that was going to be our opportunity to get people out into the community."

The goal, she said, is to "step [clients] down to more independence" depending on their needs. Outside of a residential treatment program, clients could also be placed into housing programs that include daily check-ins from social service workers or food deliveries. Job placements are also part of the assessments.

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This program is an existing one, so Holloway said she does not expect to get federal assistance to pay for the services.

Social service agencies and outreach workers are coming together in an initiative combining service with the Department of Health and Social Service to identify and assist Delaware's most vulnerable population bringing supplies and services during the coronavirus outbreak.

Kenneth Carley, 61, was placed into the Wilmington hotel for six weeks. He said he interviewed for housing placements, then one day in late May was rushed into a van that took him to what appeared to be a transitional housing unit in Newark. 

He was told he could stay there for 90 days. He's hoping to get help to find a more permanent home.

Looking for a job is difficult otherwise, he said, and he wants somewhere to keep his belongings, some of which he had to leave behind at the hotel. Many of the usual spots in Wilmington, where the homeless stored their belongings, closed during the pandemic.

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"I don't want to go too far away to get a job, you [might] get something that doesn't fit your schedule or timing," he said. "And we can't have stuff here because we're in transition. I've been wearing one outfit for a month and a half."

Stefan and another man who had stayed at the Wilmington hotel, who asked not to be identified out of privacy concerns, were also placed into separate houses in Newark.

They said it was unclear whether they had been enrolled into programs specifically for mental health treatment and believed their placements to be temporary.

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A woman staying in a motel on N. DuPont Highway, in Dover, peaks out of her room wearing a protective mask.

The lack of internet access in the houses was isolating, Stefan said, and kept him from being able to file for his federal stimulus check.

The residents are not allowed to share food with each other, or have visitors in the houses, they said. It was a hard rule to swallow for a group of homeless residents who were used to sticking together.

"I don't have much left in the world," Stefan's friend said. "I like to be of use to others. If I can cook for them, one thing I can still have is a reputation for generosity and helpfulness."

Still, they acknowledged the housing units on a quiet, residential street were preferable to being awakened early in the morning at the Sunday Breakfast Mission shelter in downtown Wilmington, where they sometimes stayed before the pandemic hit.

They said it seemed coronavirus had pushed the state to house more of the state's homeless, even temporarily.

"It's sad," Stefan said. "They seem to have had these vouchers all along."

"I felt guilty about it," his friend responded. "How many people had to die in order for me to get treated like a human being?" 

Jeanne Kuang covers Wilmington for The News Journal. Contact her at jkuang@delawareonline.com or (302) 324-2476. Follow her on Twitter at @JeanneKuang.