For five months, nearly 40 different people in the Sussex County area who were homeless had a warm, dry place to sleep and a hot meal every day, in downtown Bethany Beach.
SOUL (Serving Others Under the Lord) Ministries, an outreach ministry for those who are homeless or in need, teamed up with the Southeast Sussex Ministerium to use Stone House — one of the vacant beach houses on the campground of the Christian Church Conference Center — as a shelter for those who would otherwise be out in the cold.
The home sleeps 16, with six bedrooms and four bathrooms on the second floor and two handicapped-accessible bedrooms on first floor that share a bathroom. There is a fireplace, kitchen, dining area and two meeting areas.
“When we thought ‘shelter,’ we were thinking one big room with a bunch of cots,” said Eric Snyder, who helped form SOUL a few years ago of the initial push to create a new southern Sussex shelter. “Never did we think we’d be offered a whole house.”
On Nov. 19, the first night SOUL had access to the home, they housed two homeless individuals. The next night, it was three.
“In the weeks that followed, we filled up all 16 beds,” said Snyder. “Sometimes, we’ve had up to five women, and as low as three women, depending on how many men’s beds we needed — because some people come, just to get on their feet… Two of the couples we got right away, one guy got work in Pennsylvania, and the other couple had a job and were finally able to get an apartment.”
The house operated as a shelter through March and housed more than 35 people, with approximately 20 leaving when their circumstances improved.
“It has really been amazing how many people left for housing or jobs right out the gate,” Snyder said. “Our goal here was everyone leaves here with a job and a house. That way, if one does, we’ve succeeded.”
The success stories, said Snyder, were touching. He noted stories of broken people being healed and families being reunited.
“We’ve seen a lot… There’re a lot of broken people. As they come in here, we heal them and teach them the importance of forgiveness, both in themselves and of others. We’ve seen restoration of families — ‘I haven’t talked to my mom in five years’ to ‘Mom wants me to come live with her again, because she’s realized I’m not the same person I was.’ There’re a lot of stories like that.”
Having spent time in the elements while seeking out those who are homeless on Delmarva, Snyder has seen the face of homelessness firsthand.
“What we’ve seen here is the same thing we’ve seen on the streets: there’s no one cause of homelessness — mental illness, people with physical disability, substance abuse — it’s all situational.”
He did say that they noticed many younger men who needed shelter.
“One thing we found out this year is young guys… Before, the average age was 50… This year, we’ve had close to eight under 25. We’ve had three 20-year-olds. A lot of them have gone into the foster system and no one wants them, and then they rebel against the foster system,” he said, adding that they worked to teach them to accept blessings, however small they seem.
“We’ve done a lot of that here, with quite a few of the younger ones… You can’t rebel against a blessing. When someone tries to help you — it may not be wanted or the help you should’ve gotten or the help the other kids got… when people are helping you, say ‘thank you’ and accept the blessing.”
Snyder said having a homelike atmosphere really made a positive impact on the shelter’s residents.
“Being in a house has really made it a home. That’s been our whole point — we want you to feel at home. So you come home and you feel lifted up, and you don’t have to worry.
“When you’re on the streets, it’s about survival — ‘How am I going to get through today? I can’t think about the future, because I’ve got to get through today.’ If, every day, they know ‘I’m going to be fed and I’m going to be warm tonight,’ then ‘Today I can think about the future, because tonight is already taken care of.’”
Snyder said that, every night, the residents would have to fulfill their responsibilities as a houseguest, which included sweeping, mopping and sanitizing.
“They’ve kept it tidy. Someone who believes in the stereotype wouldn’t walk in here and go, ‘Oh, this is a homeless shelter.’ They’d go, ‘Wow, this is a nice beach house. Where are you guys from?’ It’s truly amazing.”
The shelter was closed to guests during the day, with Snyder and his wife, Cherith, along with SOUL volunteer Matt Coffin, driving the residents to a day shelter in Rehoboth Beach, to then return later that evening.
Not everything was perfect, Snyder admitted, noting that some residents were asked to leave because they could not follow the house rules or their substance addictions got the better of them.
“We have a couple who have used heroin — we caught them shooting up, and we had to let them go. But, by and large, you give someone love and they stop hurting themselves.”
Snyder himself spent those four months away from his own home, opting to sleep on the couch in Stone House.
“It has really been an amazing four months. I’ve been home, I think, three times,” he said. “It’s been hard, but it’s been great. It’s like having kids. It’s its own reward. As many times as you want to pull your hair out, as many times as you want to scream, as many times as you want to throw your hands up and say, ‘Forget it — I’m going home,’ something awesome happens and it is its own reward.”
Snyder said the shelter’s residents came from other shelters and even other areas.
“There were three from Wilmington. One gentleman from New York — somehow he got left in Delaware and couldn’t afford to get back.”
There were many residents with different backgrounds and faiths, including Muslim, Jewish, Wiccan and Quaker.
Snyder said that, although SOUL is faith-based, it is not their mission to force their religion on anyone.
“They all need to understand love and grace and mercy and hope, because those are things that, maybe, somewhere in their life, didn’t make sense to them, or maybe people didn’t show them. We have found that Christ is the source of all of that. We don’t beat religion down their throats — we raise them up and show them how those principles apply to their lives without changing their religion.”
During their time in Stone House, SOUL would hold devotionals that the residents were required to attend, though they were not forced to participate.
“They weren’t required to participate; they were just required to be respectful. It was amazing how these people of different backgrounds and different cultures all joined in from their perspective… It’s not about a religion — it’s about hope.”
Many community members reached out to help SOUL during their four months at Stone House.
Bonnie Rae, who served as moderator of the Bethany Beach Christian Church when SOUL first entered Stone House, said that members of the church provided meals to the guests every Monday night.
“This was an experiment this year, to see how well it would operate, and it has truly been a wonderful experiment,” said Rae. “They have done an excellent job making it a warm and welcoming, and safe, shelter for the winter… We were happy to be involved in it.”
Rae said visiting with the guests was an eye-opening experience.
“I’d love to see more public awareness of the homelessness. I think it’s there whether people want to acknowledge that it’s here. It would be wonderful to have a permanent facility where services could be more centrally located to help people in need.”
Cindy Benjamin, a member of Ocean View Presbyterian Church, worked with her congregation to provide a meal to Stone House residents every Saturday night. She also volunteers at Mariner’s Bethel United Methodist Church’s Thursday soup kitchen.
“I just was so grateful that the Christian Church was willing to open up their facility to these people who had no place to go,” said Benjamin. “Cherith and Eric were so committed to it.”
Benjamin noted that she and her husband had run a soup kitchen in Pittsburg, Pa., she said the homeless population in Bethany Beach is nonexistent because the services for them are nonexistent there.
She praised SOUL for their work, stating they went “way above and beyond” in helping those who were homeless in any way they could.
Quentin Elsea, director of youth and families at Salem United Methodist Church, said he was invited by Snyder to attend one of the devotionals.
“Eric invited us to come and do devotional time for the people staying there. Each night they would just gather after dinner and pray or look at scripture. We came with our worship team from the church and did some songs for them.”
Elsea said that, prior to working with SOUL, he had known about the homeless problem in the area, having seen individuals who “looked like they were without a place to stay.” After spending time with the guests at Stone House, Elesa said he was able to view the area’s homeless population in a completely different way.
“It was a very humbling experience. I would say we all make assumptions about — whether we make assumptions about their work ethic or willingness to get jobs — all sorts of assumptions about why they don’t have a place to stay.
“But after interacting with them and seeing them on a human level, and coming to the realization that it’s really by God’s grace that I’m not in their shoes… We’re all kind of one or two bad situations from losing everything. It was a reminder that those of us who are blessed have an obligation to help those who are hurting and in a bad place.”
Salem itself offers a community food pantry on the third Saturday of each month, excluding June through August, opening at 9 a.m. The food pantry is run by a number of area churches, and those who wish to collect food items must bring a photo ID.
Elsea said that, through community outreach such as the food pantry and the work that SOUL is doing, he hopes more people will become involved in helping out their fellow neighbors in need.
“I really hope that, through all of this, people can see this is a real and lasting issue. It’s not just a third-world problem — it’s right here in our back yard, and I would hope people might take the time to see what’s uncomfortable, and maybe have the compassion to do something about it.”
“It doesn’t take a village,” said Snyder, “It takes an army.”
He added that, without the enormous outpouring of support from the town, the local churches and community members, the shelter would not have been as successful as it was. And, although the Stone House shelter has been closed now that spring has arrived, there is more work to be done.
“SOUL doesn’t stop because the shelter closes. The idea of getting to do this year-round all day long, is an awesome thought now. Now, we know it’s possible,” he said. “All day long, we could be getting them the real help they need.”
SOUL Ministries has been trying to raise $250,000 to purchase a building and property to open a 24-7 shelter in Sussex County that would offer everything from showers and laundry facilities to computer access and job-search assistance, and more.
“The goal is still to have a 24-hour place, so during the day we can have counseling — drug and alcohol, résumé writing, job counseling,” explained Snyder.
SOUL will also continue to collect items to be given out to the homeless residents throughout Delmarva, including tents, blankets, clothing and toiletries.
Snyder said he hopes to help destigmatize homelessness and make those who have a roof over their heads understand that a house does not make a person.
“Some of my best friends are homeless. There’s a stirring in my heart that people need to know the truth — not just for the homeless population but, I think, for the general population,” he said. “The stigmas and the stereotypes become fear…
“The more people understand homelessness is a situation, the more people will understand that it’s not their fault. It’s not a choice — [that] they choose to be homeless because they’re lazy, they’re homeless because they’re drunk. If they realize it’s a situation that could be you, more people would help.”
For more information about SOUL Ministries, call (302) 632-4289. SOUL Ministries may also be found on Facebook, at www.facebook.com/soulministriesde. To donate to the shelter fund, visit http://www.youcaring.com/nonprofits/sussex-county-homeless-shelter/23968....