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How Code Purple plans to shelter the homeless amid COVID-19

Delaware's homeless are facing a COVID-19 double whammy. 

Not only are they disproportionately affected by the virus, but emergency shelters are housing fewer people to meet social distancing requirements. 

The Delaware Housing Alliance points to a study on homelessness and COVID-19 by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, UCLA and Boston University as "the most authoritative study to date on the topic."

The study projects that during the pandemic, the homeless are twice as likely to be hospitalized, two to four times as likely to require critical care and two to three times as likely to die than the general population.

With Delaware facing the coldest temperatures of the winter from Wednesday night through Thursday, Code Purple is being declared across the state by the nonprofit and volunteer organizations that operate the shelters to keep people who are homeless safe during dangerous winter weather.

That's because of "the extraordinarily high susceptibility to symptomatic infection, hospitalization and fatality among the homeless population," due in part to the mental and physical toll the constant exposure to the elements takes on them. 

Despite the daunting statistics, Code Purple Sussex County will continue to help the homeless this winter. 

"We're trying to put together a puzzle with some missing pieces," said Executive Director Nikki Gonzalez. "These are things we've never had to think about."

Code Purple shelters operate out of churches that volunteer their space. So far this year, five Sussex churches are participating, including:

  • Women only: Grace Seaford Church, 805 Atlanta Road, Seaford.
  • Men only: Avenue United Methodist Church, 20 N. Church St., Milford.
  • Women only: Milford Nazarene, 11 NW Salevan Place, Milford.
  • Men only: Laurel Nazarene, 100 Walnut Drive, Laurel.
  • Men only: Georgetown Presbyterian Church, 203 N. Bedford St., Georgetown.

"We're hoping that will change," Gonzalez said.

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Aside from Laurel Nazarene, which will open Jan. 1, each shelter is open every night from Dec. 1 through March 15, regardless of temperature.

Last year, Code Purple operated with eight shelters. On the eastern side of the county, shelters in Bethany Beach and Lewes will not open this year unless churches and volunteers become available.

A shelter that operated in Bethany Beach last year lost a person who was integral to managing it and the former Troop 7, on Route 1 in Lewes, has not been offered for use this year, according to Gonzalez.

Tony Skrzecz is one of the pastors at Grace Seaford and the site coordinator for Code Purple.

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"What Code Purple shelters do in the winter is keep someone alive for one more day. It's that simple," Skrzecz said. "I really wish, I pray, that more churches will step up. We're supposed to do this as Christians. We are called to do these things."

Fewer shelters means fewer beds, as do social distancing requirements. Beds will be at least 6 feet apart and heads will be staggered at opposite ends. 

Most shelters will be capped at 14 people per night. In Laurel, only eight beds will be available. That's not enough for the number of people Code Purple sheltered last year, around 300 individuals total.

Gonzalez said Code Purple is planning for overages, to include applying for money from the federal coronavirus relief package. Code Purple Sussex County is operated by the donation-based nonprofit Love Inc.

According to Homeless Alliance Delaware's website, since the pandemic began, over 300 homeless and "medically vulnerable" Delawareans have already been placed in hotel rooms.

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Code Purple's plan to reduce the spread of COVID-19 is to require people to call and reserve a bed each morning. They will prescreen everyone who calls and then screen them again when they arrive for the night.  

"We'll probably end up utilizing the hospital if someone ends up ill," Gonzalez said. "We're trying to work with doctors to get rapid testing. It's very tricky."

In past years, community members and groups would volunteer to provide meals for those at each shelter each night. This year, meals will have to be in to-go containers and eaten on shelter cots.

"We're trying to source out to food kitchens, soup kitchens. We're trying to gird up to-go bags with breakfast, lunch, snacks so they have sustenance all day," Gonzalez said.

Code Purple is also working with fewer volunteers this year, like nearly all volunteer-based programs across the nation.

"We have a large number of elderly volunteers that won't be coming back," Gonzalez said.  "It's definitely an issue."

Older people are more likely to be susceptible to COVID-19, according to the CDC.  

Code Purple attempts to have two volunteers at each shelter, but that doesn't always work out.

All shelter guests will be required to wear a mask this year except when in their cot. Masks will be provided to those who do not have them. There will also be increased cleaning and sanitation. 

Those interested in volunteering or churches interested in providing shelter space should email codepurplesussexcounty@gmail.com.

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