Homelessness may not be an obvious problem in Sussex County, but it is a real one.
“It’s pretty big,” said Michele Stewart, program director for Crisis House in Georgetown, of homelessness in Sussex County. “And I think it’s bigger than what most people think it is. We serve about 283 people a year, and that’s not including how many people we turn away on a daily basis because of not having the room.”
Crisis House, which has been serving the Sussex County area for more than 20 years, offers shelter to those who have lost their home, for whatever reason.
“We serve men women and children. I believe we’re the only shelter in Sussex County that takes kids,” noted Stewart. “There is no charge while they are here, and they get all their meals for free.”
Stewart described the shelter as a first-call, first-serve facility; any empty beds she has will be given to those who request them first. A background check is required, and the shelter does not house registered sex offenders or those with outstanding warrants.
Those who are in need are eligible stay in the house for up to 30 days per year, and on any given day there can be between 20 and 25 people staying in the shelter.
“They’ll be assigned a case manager that helps them with employment and housing. We refer out to Brandywine Counseling for mental health and substance abuse. We pretty much utilize all the different agencies in the area for different services that they provide if it fits the client’s need.”
Stewart noted that Crisis House is unable to provide transportation to school for children but will work with the parents and school districts to ensure as little disruption as possible for the children.
“Usually, there’s a homeless liaison in every school district now that will set up transportation so that they can continue to attend the same school unless it’s entirely too far out of the way. I’ve had people here who are in the Seaford School District, and they’ve arranged transportation to pick them up here and take them.”
Crisis House originally started as a shelter for people who had lost their homes due to fire but has since branched out to serve all those without a home. Other organizations have seen a need, as well, and are trying to address it.
“Quite honestly, there aren’t a lot of resources in the area for the homeless,” explained the Rev. Kim Tephabock, pastor of the Dagsboro Church of God and founder of Unite Sussex, a nonprofit organization that works to fully understand the problems of Sussex County and bring together solutions through community and government.
“Before the economic crisis, most of the homeless people in Sussex County were mentally ill or had drug and alcohol issues. The economic crisis has created a new breed of homelessness.”
At the end of March 2010, Habitat for Humanity was granted by the Sussex County Council temporary rights to use two vacant homes near the Sussex County Airport in Georgetown, which Tephabock sees as a huge opportunity to help.
“One house will be used as a place for volunteers who are coming into the area to work on projects for homes for people and the other as a transitional home for families that are preparing to enter the Habitat program and be future homeowners,” he said. “Our part is to seek more of these transitional home opportunities.”
Dagsboro Church of God has a list of nearby shelters that they will offer to anyone who requests information. Tephabock also pointed out that, no matter the day or time, the State of Delaware has a toll-free helpline than anyone can use to get immediate assistance, simply by dialing 211.
“I get a lot of calls around Christmas time, and every office I call for help is closed,” he said. “They could call some 800 line, but they might not know what that number is. They’re out on the street, they’re cold, they’re scared, and all of the offices may look shut. But they can call always call the 211 helpline, which is basically an 800 helpline number that has access to all of the agencies that the State works with that offer help.”
To these organizations, the homeless population not only appears to be growing but to be evolving, as well.
“It is kind of a changing animal. We’re seeing, rather than huge amount of indigent homeless, we have a new breed of homeless arising,” said Tephabock. “People who don’t have a security deposit, people who are being evicted from their house and don’t know where to go from here — I think that’s the challenge in Sussex County.”
“I think our intake has been the same since the economy went out,” added Stewart.
Dottie Campbell, coordinator of the Community Food Pantry in Selbyville, agreed.
“Many of the people we’re seeing now are parents who are taking in their children or grandchildren because they’ve either lost their homes or their jobs,” she said. “We’re also seeing a lot of people out of work.
“We’re seeing more Hispanic families coming because they’re in dire straits too. Their hours are being cut, some are only working one day a week… this is primarily who we are looking to serve — those who are less fortunate. For the last couple months we’ve been doing 130 families, and there are probably a lot more people that are actually benefitting from it.”
The food pantry, which is held in Salem Center at Salem United Methodist Church, serves those who are in need in the lower eastern part of Sussex County. Food is distributed on the third Saturday of each month, and those who go to collect it must first fill out an application.
“They need to qualify, as far as their income. We use the federal poverty guidelines as our source, and they need to live in our service areas,” said Campbell. “We never turn anyone away. Even if they may not fit the requirements, we don’t send them away. We figure they need food if they’re there.”
The biggest arm of support seems to come from those who volunteer their time or donate to help the nonprofit groups in the area.
“We purchase most of our food, but we do have a lot of people who donate food. They have food drives for us. The scouts help us, the Young Girls of Faith at Salem, some other organizations in the communities,” said Campbell.
“We take food donations at the door all the time. We’re always in need of detergent, coffee, creamer, cleaning supplies, things like that,” added Stewart. “We don’t take too many clothes donations anymore… If someone comes to donate clothes, we ask them to donate to Robin Hood Thrift Store behind us. My people can go there with a voucher from me and get some things for free. It’s the same at the Christian Storehouse in Millsboro. If I send a letter, they’ll gladly let them have a couple items that they need.”
However, like all nonprofits, during times of economic difficulty, they too have trouble with funding. The Community Food Pantry is not state-funded and works purely off of the donations of others and even spends their own money to buy food.
Crisis House has state funding, but it is also having trouble finding the funds to sustain the program.
“The more people that can support us, the more homeless we’ll be able to reach. Funding being cut the last two years — there’s not a lot of money out there to be gotten, so we’re running on a very, very tight budget. At this point in time, if we were to lose any of our funding, we would probably have to close,” said Stewart.
Even local police agencies may offer help or suggestions to those in need. Ocean View Police Chief Ken McLaughlin said that, although there does not seem to be a large homeless population in their service area, they have helped those in need from time to time.
“In the past, on average, maybe once a year we’ve encountered someone who is truly homeless and that’s reaching out for help,” he said. “We would refer folks to the state service center up in Georgetown, and they have a number of resources there. We’ve had folks walk in, and we’ve worked to find them some temporary housing, through the Red Cross and various state agencies. Then they will normally jump in to do follow-ups and longer-term assistance.”
And while the area’s homelessness problem won’t disappear tomorrow, for those in need there are a number of organizations and services available today that can offer them help in their time of need.