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Pandemic emergency shelter program will run out of funding by end of month

As housing prices have risen, more families have been forced to find temporary housing in motels, such as Super 8.
Paul Kiefer
Delaware Public Media
As housing prices have risen, more families have been forced to find temporary housing in motels, such as Super 8.

Delawareans living in motels as part of a pandemic-era emergency housing program received letters on Monday informing them that the program will end on August 31.

Delaware’s Department of Health and Social Services had anticipated that the federal COVID relief dollars supporting the pandemic shelter program would dry up within the coming months, but Monday’s announcement offered the first concrete end date. Over the course of the past two years, the program served more than 6,000 households.

As of this week, DHSS says that 436 households – more than half of them families with children – remain in motels. 186 of those households are in Sussex County, 102 are in Kent County, and 145 are in New Castle County.

A separate emergency motel voucher that predates the pandemic will continue, though that program caps the dollar amount that a household can use to pay for a motel in a 12-month period; many of the households currently in motels have already exceeded that cap.

DHSS Deputy Secretary Daniel Walker says that his agency is hurrying to assemble as many partners as possible, including local and county governments, to support the program’s clients as they search for new places to live.

His department will also continue to provide case managers to households after the program ends, with the goal of offering support until the household has stable long-term housing.

“That is our focus – to make sure the transition is smooth and not cumbersome," he said. "That is why we want to ensure that our families and individuals have a dedicated person to reach out to. Everyone is all-hands-on-deck."

Among DHSS' partners in the effort is the Delaware State Housing Authority, which plans to help motel residents apply for state affordable housing programs and to recruit landlords to take in displaced households.

The department is also negotiating with some motel owners who currently participate in their pandemic emergency shelter program to guarantee lower monthly rates to DHSS clients. As the tourism season winds to a close, Walker says his agency is hopeful that motels will remain a backup option for those seeking alternative housing.

Walker also notes that families with children may have more options, given that they may qualify for federal assistance to cover housing-transition related costs like rental deposits. Delaware's Department of Education is preparing to help homeless children transfer school districts if their families need to move elsewhere in the state to find new accommodations.

For those without children, DHSS says options may be scarcer. Housing Alliance Delaware Director Rachael Stucker, whose organizations manages the statewide intake process for shelters, says that open beds are typically few and far between. As of Tuesday, she noted, only six shelter spaces were available in Delaware: three beds for single men in New Castle County along with two beds for single women and one space for a family in Kent County. No spaces were available in Sussex County, despite the county having the largest number of households still reliant on motel vouchers.

“That’s not abnormal," she said. "We spend a lot of time telling folks that there’s nothing available in the system to serve them, to give them safe shelter... Frequently, it takes a number of weeks before we can place someone in a safe place to sleep.”

In the meantime, DHSS has created a statewide hotline for clients impacted by the program's end, with Spanish-speaking staff members also available to take calls.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.