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Annual homelessness count shows big increase, but advocates say it's more complicated

Sophia Schmidt, Delaware Public Media
The New Castle County Hope Center, a hotel turned homeless shelter, opened late last year

The annual count of Delawareans experiencing homelessness is way up from last year. 

The yearly Point in Time count of Delawareans experiencing homelessness happens on a single night each January. This year’s count captured people living in congregate shelters, transitional housing or hotels and motels—but, because of COVID-19 safety concerns, it did not capture people living in places like underpasses, encampments or cars. 


Still, the count captured 1,579 people experiencing homelessness January 27, a 35% increase compared to 2020. Housing Alliance Delaware, which conducts the count for the Delaware Continuum of Care, says the true number is likely higher. 


Each of the additional 414 people counted as homeless this year were members of families with children, according to Housing Alliance. More than half of the additional people were children under the age of 18. 


Housing Alliance Delaware Executive Director Rachel Stucker says they counted a massive increase in people staying in hotels and motels—which are considered safer than congregate shelters during a pandemic—with vouchers funded through federal coronavirus relief.  


“There was this huge infusion of funding to make sure people had safe accommodations during the crisis,” she said. “Because of that, we were able to see how many people didn’t have safe accommodations, how many households with children were living in unsafe situations.”


During the 2021 count, 839 people were temporarily sheltered in a hotel or motel, compared to 50 people last year. Stucker says in years past, the hotel and motel vouchers had time limits of a few weeks. 


“Some folks may have ended up staying in their cars for a few nights, some folks may have gone back with family and friends—but during COVID, folks were allowed to stay,” she said.


This year’s count showed Black Delawareans continue to experience homelessness at much higher rates than white Delawareans. Black people made up more than 60% of those counted as homeless in Delaware this year, but just 23% of the state's population. Housing Alliance says a household with children headed by a Black adult in Delaware is eight times more likely to experience homelessness than a family headed by a white adult.

“It’s a huge problem,” Stucker said. “It just shows the huge disparities, both economically and in housing. It’s a huge racial justice issue.”


Congregate shelter capacity decreased by more than 100 beds last year as a result of social distancing and other COVID-19 precautions. Because of this, fewer than half of the state’s total congregate shelter beds were filled during this year’s Point in Time count, which Housing Alliance calls an all-time low. 


Stucker says her organization believes there was no decrease in the number of unsheltered Delawareans this year, based on sustained calls to the centralized intake system for shelter placement the organization runs. 


Stucker says the primary driver of homelessness in Delaware is a shortage of safe, affordable housing. She says evictions and foreclosures did not significantly contribute to the observed increase in people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic. 


Stucker notes nonprofits that address homelessness continue to have more funding than usual this year because of federal coronavirus relief—and are struggling to put it toward ‘rapid re-housing’ fast enough. Housing Alliance Delaware reports that during this year’s Point in Time count, only 37 of the 839 people staying in hotels and motels were being served by rapid re-housing programs.


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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