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'A miracle': New Castle County's hotel opens for emergency shelter on eve of predicted snow

Just weeks after New Castle County settled on the property, the old Sheraton hotel along I-95 in New Castle is open as an emergency shelter. 

The County bought the hotel through an auction in October with $19.5 million of its federal coronavirus relief money. With winter weather on its way, the New Castle County Hope Center opened not a day too soon.

More than 50 people previously living outside slept in the hotel Tuesday after being screened and tested for COVID-19. The nonprofit Friendship House is expected to bring more people by shuttle Wednesday.

John Victor Lewis arrived at the hotel Tuesday afternoon, after sleeping in a used car lot the night before. He’s been chronically homeless for more than a decade because he struggles with alcoholism.

“This is really a miracle for me,” he said. “Without this, I don’t think I would have survived this winter.”

With libraries closed due to the virus and indoor capacity at coffee shops limited, people like Lewis have struggled to find shelter even during the day.

“That made things extremely tough,” Lewis said. “I can’t go to the library to get warm. They kick you out of the train station. They won’t even let you use the restroom in there. Where are you supposed to perform basic bodily functions? There’s nothing open.”

The hotel will meet residents’ need for daytime shelter, as well as transportation, food and social services. The state’s mental health and substance use bridge clinic will be at the hotel 24/7. COVID-negative residents are free to come and go, within the bounds of a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew. Exceptions can be made for residents’ job schedules, says County Community Development and Housing Manager Carrie Casey.

Casey, who led the Hope Center project for the County, hopes the hotel and the services there help residents eventually find permanent housing. But the immediate focus is keeping residents safe during the pandemic.

Casey points to the success of the state’s motel voucher program.

“We’re seeing that safely housing people experiencing homelessness in a hotel room actually keeps them safe, as well as the public,” she said.

The Hope Center’s extra shelter space is especially needed this year.

Kim Eppehimer is executive director at Friendship House, which coordinates emergency cold-weather shelter known as “Code Purple.” She says many churches that normally donate space closed their doors or limited capacity this year because of COVID-19.

“Capacity was at half if not even worse than that,” said Eppehimer. “This opens opportunity—we have many more beds and many more places for people to be.”

The Hope Center will start accepting referrals through the state’s centralized intake system next week.

“I think the biggest challenge is the expectation of people wanting to come here and it not being as easy as walking through the door,” Casey said. “That’ll be our biggest challenge, is the absolute crazy need for housing for people experiencing homelessness through COVID-19.”

Some members of the public have criticized the County’s purchase of the hotel, worrying that after federal coronavirus relief money dries up, county taxpayers will be on the hook for the hotel’s operation. Members of County Council have pushed back on these complaints, arguing it’s the County’s responsibility to provide for all residents, especially the most vulnerable.

Casey told a Council committee last month that the first two years of operations should not require County funding. County staff have estimated a $2.5 million yearly operating budget for the hotel. Casey said in the short term this would largely be funded by the County’s U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) coronavirus relief money, which has a longer spending deadline than general CARES Act funds.

The hotel will also receive per diem revenue through the statewide hotel voucher program, which Casey says is funded jointly with federal money administered by the state, New Castle County and municipalities like Wilmington and Newark. County officials also plan to apply for public and private grants.

“My instructions to our leadership team was let’s get this up and running as quickly as possible,” County Executive Matt Meyer said at the hotel Tuesday.

Lewis sees staying at the hotel as an opportunity, and says he’s grateful for it.
“Yet one more time, I get another chance to do better—and maybe help others,” he said.
“Guess what?” Lewis added. “This Christmas, there is room at the inn.”

Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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