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Wilmington woman seeks to end homelessness through empowerment, not handouts

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For DeBorah Gilbert White, ending homelessness won’t be achieved through short-term handouts of food, clothing or legal advice; it can only be accomplished by helping affected individuals recognize that they have the power to get a roof over their heads and to get their lives back to full function.

That’s why the Wilmington resident has set up a group that advocates for women who are homeless, formerly homeless, or risk of losing their homes, by raising awareness and encouraging affected individuals to speak about their experiences.

White, who was herself homeless for five months in 2011, now runs HerStory Ensemble, a one-woman nonprofit that encourages women who are homeless or may become so to speak out to others in the community.

The group, formed in January 2014, is holding a benefit evening on April 29 when it will present its first advocacy award to Veronika Scott, a Detroit activist whose own nonprofit, The Empowerment Plan, makes coats that can be turned into sleeping bags for the homeless.

For White, the principle of empowerment, not charity, is central to her mission of helping homeless people get off the streets and into housing where they can rebuild their lives. It can also help those who are at risk of losing their homes to avert that event and take control.

While she helps homeless women with small cash payments if she can, the core of her operation is story-telling.

“Our members are women who want to tell their story, and we do this by doing presentations to organizations around the issue of homelessness,” she said, in an interview at a North Wilmington McDonalds. “It’s basically awareness and education.”

She said she confines her efforts to women because she identifies with them, and because she can protect children in the process.

To encourage women to speak about their experiences with homelessness, the organization pays a stipend of $50 if their audience is in Delaware, and $100 for out-of-state events, White said.

Included in White’s mission is ending discrimination against affected individuals, and to that end, she is a strong supporter of the Homeless Persons’ Bill of Rights, a piece of legislation that is expected to be considered by a state Senate committee in mid-April.

The bill, a modified version of one that failed to become law in the last legislative session, would outlaw discrimination against homeless people who are seeking housing, jobs, or medical treatment; who want to vote, or to use public services such as transportation.

The legislation, similar to laws in several other states, would also ban discrimination against homeless people seeking temporary shelter on the basis of factors including race, religion or sexual orientation.

“No person’s rights, privileges or access to public services should be denied or abridged solely because he or she is homeless,” the bill says. “Such a person shall be granted the same rights and privileges as any other resident of this state.”

The lead sponsor is Sen. Bryan Townsend (D., Newark), who said he hopes to have the bill on Gov. Jack Markell’s desk by the end of the current legislative session on June 30.

Like White, Townsend argued that homelessness is a complex subject that is not always understood by the public, and he hopes the bill will help to end its stigma.

“Homelessness is a complicated issue and it involves a variety of solutions but one of them is trying to make sure that when people who are homeless do interact with the system, the system is not discriminating against them,” he said in an interview.

Although the public image of a homeless person is commonly that of a ragged man living on the street and subsisting on handouts, the reality is more complex, Townsend said.

In fact, the homeless population includes women and children, and those who move in and out of homelessness. All of them, he argued, deserve protection against discrimination.

“There’s discrimination that happens as a result, and should not be permitted,” he said.

One change from the previous bill that didn’t make it through the legislature before the end of the last session is language that prevents people being denied housing on the basis of their homeless status if they have met every other requirement in their applications, Townsend said.

The state’s homeless population is about 6,000 people, Townsend said, citing an estimate from the Homeless Planning Council of Delaware in 2010. The number appears to have stabilized with a recent improvement in the economy but that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable, he said.

“It’s stable in a place that you don’t want to be in,” he said.

If the bill becomes law, its beneficiaries may include Rose Davis, a Wilmington resident who since 2009 has been in transitional housing – where she gets her own room but shares facilities with several other women -- and who has been a speaker at events arranged by White’s group.

Davis, 60, said she was let go from her job at Bank of America in 2008 after working there for a year. She said she couldn’t deal with the company’s “micromanagement.”

Since then, she has been to college to learn fashion design, earned an associate’s degree in 2014, and is now trying to start a business in that field while working as a fragrance model in a mall.

Davis said she has become a supporter of White’s group because it is working to dispel public misconceptions about homelessness.

“When you are in transition or you lose your housing, you are looked at in a certain way, as if you are lazy, and that is not the case,” she said.

Davis’s support for White’s initiative has led her to her becoming a speaker at White’s meetings where she shares her own experiences and talks about the realities of living in transitional housing.

In her public speaking, she tries to dispel stereotypes about homelessness, which she says can even affect people with bigger expectations.

“Sometimes, you think, OK, you’re in college, that means money, that means a job, that means you can buy a house, but that’s not always the case,” she said.

Davis said she has been unable to find a full-time job since 2008, and takes contracting work to pay her $540-a-month rent and other expenses. She chooses not to live with her 31-year-old daughter.

Davis’s story is not so different from that of White herself, a single 59-year-old with a PhD in social psychology, who has been unable to find full-time work since losing her job as a case manager with Catholic Charities in Dover in early 2015.

Now, she makes between $11 and $21 an hour as a contract counselor at Wilmington public schools; teaches online courses with the University of Phoenix when they are available, and draws about $900 a month from two pension plans.

After a month in a shelter and four months living with family back in 2011, White is no longer homeless, and has lived in an apartment in downtown Wilmington since November last year. With $750 in monthly rent, it’s not always easy to make ends meet but she said she’s “very frugal” and remains upbeat about her own financial situation and her mission to create a better life for Delaware’s homeless people.

“I work on it all the time,” she said. “I make room for this because it is what keeps me going. This is not a hobby, this is a calling.”

Jon has been reporting on environmental and other topics for Delaware Public Media since 2011. Stories range from sea-level rise and commercial composting to the rebuilding program at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge and the University of Delaware’s aborted data center plan.
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