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Nowhere else to turn

Brittany Horn
The News Journal
A small child peers out a motel window along U.S. 40 as a woman staying at the short-term accommodation returns with cash in hand.

Brandi Bullock's four children keep her busy.

With three girls and one boy ranging in age from 5 to 10 years old, there is always something to do, somewhere to go.

Bullock is also the self-proclaimed "Dr. Phil" of her neighborhood. She helps the older woman who lives next door. She lends a listening ear when a new person moves in. She also holds down a full-time job.

Her community isn't nestled in New Castle County's green suburbs or in an apartment complex on the fringes of Wilmington. 

For Bullock, home is the Hollywood Motel, which sits on U.S. 13 partially hidden by Leon's Garden World and next to a small used car lot.

Bullock, 34, her children and her fiancé share a small room. She also works as a housekeeper and on-site manager there.

"I understand the day-to-day struggle,” said Bullock, who has called the 20-some-room motel with chipping, beige paint home for the last five years. “Everybody needs help every once in awhile.”

An estimated 3,500 Delawareans struggle to find stable housing and employment. So Bullock turned to what even the state considers to be its last resort for housing. 

Many of these small, often privately owned motels dot Delaware’s highways. It is here that people struggling with many of the state’s biggest issues like addiction, homelessness, poverty and unemployment converge. They are here, often, at the recommendation and support of state service officials. 

Bullock’s neighbors come and go, some stay for a few nights while others span months or even years. They range from people struggling with addiction to families trying to escape an abusive household to sex offenders lacking a landlord willing to rent to them.

And with them come those who target people struggling the most: drug dealers and prostitutes.

The motels that dot U.S. 13, U.S. 40 and Del. 9 almost fade into the background, a mere blur seen through the car window as vehicles whiz by. 

Brandi Bullock moved to the Hollywood Motel over 5 years ago and now works there caring for rooms and tenants needs.

But a closer, slower look shows peeling paint, missing room numbers, broken bed frames and dirty mattresses piled out front of rooms. The parking lots are often strewn with trash and empty heroin baggies.

In one motel parking lot along U.S. 13, women gathered around a Brandywine Counseling and Community Services outreach van that targets overdose hotspots in New Castle County. 

Outreach workers had free condoms, clean needles, food and the overdose-reversing medication naloxone available to anyone who wanted it. Nearly all of the rail-thin women took what the workers had to offer – all under the watchful eye of a man.

Prostitution and drug use reign supreme here.

Farther down the highway, a 10-room motel nearly disappeared into the overgrown brush and leafy trees. Some doors sat slightly ajar, black fabric or paper hanging down to cover the view into the small, dark rooms. 

Another motel, known for its prevalence of drug overdoses and violence, had enough furniture and leftover clothing piled outside to fill an empty apartment. The ruins of those who once called this place home littered the sidewalk and grass.

A discarded pair of dirty white Reeboks. A faded floral upholstered chair. Broken patio furniture.

And a handful of stoves, some rusted, that property management had yet to part with.

A small child peered out from behind a dirty window, watching men who said they struggle with alcoholism, stumble past outside.

A doormat with the word "blessed" on it sits outside a room at the Hollywood Motel on U.S. 13 in New Castle.

“It’s 50, 60 bucks a night to stay there so it’s convenient and they’re not asking too many questions,” said Holly Rybinski, an outreach worker with Brandywine Counseling and Community Services who was part of the visits to New Castle County motels. The work is part of efforts by the Behavioral Health Consortium.

“They don’t have anywhere else to go," she said. "And most of those motels are OK with that.”

Delaware officials have made efforts to quell issues at these motels, but the state both works with places that house residents in need of housing and also regulates those same motels and the services they offer.

Striking a balance can be difficult. 

It’s not uncommon to see a police vehicle parked outside a motel lobby or officers knocking on doors to conduct probation and parole checks.

Many people fresh out of prison land in these motels, especially when a criminal record can disqualify renters from accessing public housing.

A tattered motel sign along U.S. 40 at motel. Many of the motels are plagued with high drug traffic and prostitution.

The Delaware Department of Health and Social Services currently contracts with 19 motels statewide. They are last-ditch places for those lacking stable housing and the list of properties changes frequently, according to state officials. 

With a lack of adequate transitional and even permanent affordable housing in Delaware, officials face a real challenge: Do business with motels that may not provide the best quality of life or put people out on the street? 

Officials say that when too many calls for law enforcement are made at one location or tenants repeatedly complain about their living quarters, a motel may lose its ability to accept vouchers and the money that accompanies them.

The state also may recommend the motel take additional steps to retain its voucher status, like replace a roof or repaint.

When motels become continuously problematic, the Delaware Department of Justice wields the criminal nuisance abatement statute — which can result in legal action against the property and its owners. Most recently, the Fairview Inn along Del. 9 outside of Wilmington was served with this course of action.

Police were called to the Fairview Inn on U.S. 13 just outside of Wilmington, 434 times over a two-year period for drug overdoses, assaults, prostitution, robberies, gun crimes and other investigations.

The lawsuit, filed by state prosecutors, claims police were called to the motel 434 times over a two-year period for drug overdoses, assaults, prostitution, robberies, gun crimes and other investigations. The motel and its attorney are fighting the suit.

Shuttering these motels doesn’t solve the problems those living there face – especially when finding a stable place to live can mean having at least $937 each month for a one-bedroom apartment in Delaware, according to averages from Housing Alliance Delaware. 

Closing one motel just sends them to another.

“You’re not escaping anything,” Rybinski, the outreach worker, said. “It’s like, oh OK you gave me a place to stay but you put me right here where I’m surrounded by what I’m trying to get away from. Even if you’re not trying to get away from it, you don’t even have the option to think that there’s another way.”

DIG DEEPER:What it was like to stay at a hotel prosecutors call a criminal nuisance

On a recent July afternoon, a young woman poked her head out of a dark motel room along U.S. 40. The small motel had a few cars out front but was relatively quiet in the mid-afternoon heat.

Outreach workers rolled into the parking lot with doses of the overdose-reversing medication naloxone, condoms, food and water, all free of charge.

A 29-year-old woman who didn’t want to be identified readily accepted the offerings. Her ex-boyfriend had overdosed twice in the past year, she said, once prompting her to use the medication on him. He survived, but she hasn’t heard from him since he left for treatment, she said.

Standing in the peeling door frame of her motel room as ants climbed the speckled, black paint, the woman spoke about the need for help and for housing. Her hands absentmindedly rubbed the fresh track marks pocking her thin arms. A hair tie looped through her room key cinched around her wrist.

And in black script, the words “we do recover” accompanied a semicolon on her forearm, a sign of mental health awareness.

“It’s like a snowball effect,” the woman said. Housing Alliance Delaware estimates about 40 percent of people experiencing homelessness struggle with a disabling condition such as addiction.

This woman had also been to rehab in the past, she said.

She has lived at the motel for three months at $200 per week. The woman said she was desperate to find new living quarters. 

Hollywood Motel security guard Ted Wilkins holds the door open for Brandywine Counseling outreach workers handing out food, condoms and Narcan, the overdose reversing medication.

THE DEADLIEST YEAR YET:Stories of people we lost to drug overdoses in 2018

In the last three years, she has lost eight friends to drugs, many downstate where she previously lived. Now in New Castle County, she wants to find a place in Wilmington and hopefully get some help from a mental health and addiction treatment provider.

“God bless you,” she said to the outreach workers before retreating inside her rented room.

A motel sign along U.S. 40.

About a quarter-mile down the road, people calling motel rooms their home readily opened their doors when they realized what was available from the outreach van

They lived in a small strip of motel rooms where broken-down stoves littered the sidewalk outside and discarded clothes and shoes sat loosely stacked on a broken patio table. Piles of canned food served as sustenance for most residents, if they could afford it. 

The rooms, which smelled of cigarette smoke and mold, ran one couple about $1,150 a month. The cost goes up if more people packed the two-room efficiency. 

Fourth of July decorations surround the outside of a poorly maintained motel room along U.S. 40.

At one door, stained red, white and blue decorations leftover from the Fourth of July covered the outside of the efficiency. A girl who said she was 14 came to the door. She said she had lived there with her mother for two years. They called it home.

Less than an hour later, the 29-year-old woman from the motel down the street walked up to the outreach workers, this time with friends in tow. 

They needed more naloxone. Clean needles would help, too, if they had them, the woman said. 

None of the people, all in their late 20s and early 30s, could believe the health workers were giving them assistance.

“The state needs more programs like this,” she said.

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Delaware does have programs that support people struggling with addiction, homelessness, poverty and unemployment. Specifically, they created a program to directly support people in emergency situations who lack stable housing. 

Most know it as the voucher program, though it's technically called Emergency Assistance Services. State officials say it's not a handout program and people must meet a series of requirements to receive a voucher, which covers about $1,200 a month in rent.

A few years ago the Hollywood Motel was notorious for drugs and prostitution along U.S. 13 in New Castle but crime has decreased after the motel hired a security guard to patrol the property.

But they are just sent to a series of motels that tenants say rarely offer much more than a dry place to sleep. 

“We're in Delaware. We don't have a multitude of places we can go,” said State Services Director Renee Beaman. “Housing is an important issue and we know we don't have enough adequate places for them.”

“Their safety is our No. 1 concern,” she added.

It’s not uncommon for a motel to lose its voucher status, she said. Too many complaints by tenants or managers, coupled with calls from law enforcement, can quickly remove a motel from the state’s list.

A motel along U.S. 40 that is known for high drug and prostitution activity.

Take the Fairview Inn just outside Wilmington’s city limits.

The state stopped vouchering with the motel in 2016 when tenants reported that rodents from a nearby forested swamp were getting into the rooms. A lawsuit filed against the motel by the Delaware Department of Justice earlier this year for worsening issues said that rather than fix the problem, residents were provided rodent traps and "expected to learn how to use them to address the rodent problem themselves." 

When DHSS officials learned its voucher recipients "were being forced to live in squalor," according to the criminal complaint, they no longer sent people to the motel.

In May – three years after the motel lost its voucher status – the state took official action against the Fairview Inn by filing a criminal nuisance abatement lawsuit against the motel and its owner. 

A security guard watches over the parking lot of the Fairview Inn, which state prosecutors want to shut down.

The motel’s attorney, Brian Jordan, said his clients took numerous steps, including hiring a security guard, to lower criminal activity and reduce police calls.

But the location of the motel, along one of the only walkable roads into Wilmington and surrounded by a strip club across the street and the now-vacant Gold Club, brings certain challenges to the motel right off the bat.

Guests renting a room from a motel also expect a level of privacy – not cameras in rooms monitoring their every move, Jordan said.

“To be able to say anything that happens in that area can only be attributed to one area is too much,” the attorney said. “It’s not just as a matter of law but a matter of fact. … You’ve got to be able to show that our guys (the motel owner and staff) knew what was going on.”

Shaun Frazee, 34, sits on a bed inside a motel along U.S. 13 in New Castle. Frazee just got out of prison and is still struggling with drug addiction. After a couple of days homeless, he was able to secure a room at a motel with money from his mother's disability check and an aunt in Florida.

Inside a motel room at The Dutch Inn, an air conditioner chilled the hot July sunshine outside while Shaun Frazee tried to figure out his next move.

Just days before, the 34-year-old was released from a Delaware prison after violating his probation. With his Medicaid stopped during his incarceration and not yet back in effect, he was unable to afford his medication-assisted treatment, an injection of buprenorphine, which helps stave off opioid cravings.

Frazee’s situation left him depressed. He didn’t have a stable place to live. He wasn’t employed. And he hadn’t seen his daughters in years. 

The next best option? Back to drugs, this time fentanyl, the highly addictive synthetic painkiller considered 50 times more potent than its lookalike, heroin. 

He didn’t want to use it, but ended up buying it in Philadelphia because it’s more readily available than heroin. 

Several empty bags of heroin rest in a parking spot outside a motel room on Rt. 13 in New Castle.

The drug was so strong he was already feeling sick from withdrawal, Frazee said outside his motel room. Though he wanted to stop using, he said the withdrawal pain – coupled with his painful condition, Neurofibromatosis type 1, which causes non-cancerous tumors to grow under the skin and often sit on nerve endings – made it nearly impossible to get through the day.

Without his family’s help, he wouldn’t be able to afford the $64 per night room charge, he said. If he bought an entire week at a time, he was told it would cost $312. Most nearby motels cost about the same.

“I’ve never really been homeless before but there’s already been a couple days I’ve had to sleep outside,” Frazee said.

A tattered motel room number at a motel along U.S. 13 in New Castle.

Frazee's predicament is further complicated by the fact that he is a sex offender, which severely limits housing opportunities statewide. He’s also been unable to use his flagging license, which would allow him to make some money and afford a better place to live. 

Still, this offered him the best option for the time being.

Health workers were able to connect Frazee to the Mobile Crisis Center, which dispatches a team to a person’s location and looks to connect them with whatever services they need, including addiction treatment and mental health resources.

The following day, Frazee made it to the state's new Bridge Clinic with plans of moving into a stable room and taking advantage of the available help.

With luck, he would soon no longer call a motel room home.

READ MORE ABOUT DELAWARE'S STRUGGLE WITH ADDICTION

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Contact Brittany Horn at (302) 324-2771 or bhorn@delawareonline.com. Follow her on Twitter at @brittanyhorn.