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State holds resource fairs for households facing end of pandemic motel shelter program

A motel in Georgetown that houses several households still relying on the pandemic emergency shelter program's vouchers.
Paul Kiefer
Delaware Public Media
More than 400 households remain in motels through the federally funded pandemic emergency shelter program.

Delaware’s Department of Health and Social Services is holding resource fairs for the more than 400 households still housed in motel rooms paid for by the state’s pandemic emergency shelter program. The federal funding for that program, which has provided temporary shelter to thousands of Delawareans since the start of the pandemic, will run out by the end of this month.

Representatives from DHSS, the Delaware State Housing Authority and other state and nonprofit agencies packed behind folding tables on the second floor of a community resource center in Georgetown last Thursday. Almost every room of a motel on the other side of Route 1 is filled with DHSS clients slated to lose stable housing when the program ends.

Ashleey Custis moved from table to table, collecting a stack of pamphlets at she went. Custis says she was living in a tent encampment on the edge of Georgetown until about six months ago, when she moved into a motel room paid for by the pandemic emergency shelter program. She says that the letter she received from DHSS earlier this month announcing the program's end was not a surprise.

“I knew it was coming to an end," she said. "Everything’s not going to last forever - it’s just about planning your next step. That’s what I’m trying to do... I’m trying to find housing, and I’ve been on the list for a lot of apartments, but I’m just out here waiting.”

Custis says she previously worked in food service at a nursing home and attended classes at Delaware Tech; last Thursday, she spoke with representatives from the Department of Labor about rejoining the workforce.

Like many people grappling with the program’s end, Custis is a parent — more than half of the households still relying on the pandemic emergency shelter program are families with children.

Some families may qualify for additional federal assistance to cover some move-in costs, including rental deposits. According to DHSS, more than 200 families have applied for those grants so far, though the group of applicants may not line up perfectly with the list of households relying on the program; some applicants could come from a separate DHSS shelter program that predates the pandemic and only supports short motel stays.

DHSS Assistant Secretary Daniel Walker says case managers are working with the more than 400 households still relying on the program to connect with service providers, and resource fairs can help to make those connections more efficiently.

“Given the enormity of what’s happening, we wanted to expedite that, and so we figured having them in the same room as the agencies that provide the services is a great first step," he said.

DHSS has already assigned caseworkers to each household, but Walker noted that serving clients will become substantially more challenging if they don't have a stable address — a significant risk in a state with a severe shortage of affordable housing.

"We know people are better served if they have a permanent address," he said. "But in the absence of that, how do we make services more agile, more mobile, more flexible?"

By offering individualized services for clients — a ride to an appointment with a case manager, for example — Walker says that his department and other state partners may be able to reduce attrition from the social services pipeline.

Word of the fair spread beyond DHSS’s pandemic emergency shelter clients. One man, who asked to be identified only as Howard, says he has been paying for his own motel room for a month, but isn’t sure he can afford another week.

“It’s just too much for me to afford," he said. "There’s some stuff I need, but I just let it go. This is the first time I’ve ever… this is the first time I’ve ever asked for help.”

The Georgetown fair was relatively lightly attended, and a fair held at a motel in Seaford a day earlier saw 14 households connect with service providers.

DHSS plans to hold additional fairs at or near motels in Kent and New Castle County over the coming month. The department is also operating a hotline for clients searching for help as they plan for the program's end. That hotline has received more than 300 phone calls since the beginning of August.

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