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Tent encampments and schools prepare for rising child homelessness as motel program ends

As more than 200 homeless Delaware families prepare for the end of a pandemic-era program that paid for them to live in motels, schools and homeless encampments are also readying for the shift.

More than 200 families relying on the motel-based shelter program have less than two weeks to work with the state’s Department of Health and Social Services, state and local housing authorities and other service providers to coordinate exit plans.

Indian River School District Administrator for Homeless Education Walter Smith says his office is hiring a new specialist to work with homeless families and considering an outreach strategy to keep track of children once they lose shelter.

“We can’t just let this fall by the wayside and say, ‘we’re going to end this and not have a plan in place for where these kids will go with their families,'" he said.

Over the past two weeks, school-age children started appearing at a large tent encampment on the edge of Georgetown. Though outreach workers and camp residents have urged parents to take them elsewhere, many in the camp expect to see many more arrive by the end of the month, when the state’s pandemic emergency shelter program runs out of funding.

Most residents say they aren’t willing to keep track of children while their parents are away – citing concerns they could step on used needles or broken glass – but one woman, who asked to be identified as Tanya, says she and others living in the back of the camp are prepared to watch and protect any children who arrive.

“The best area for kids to be is in the back of the camp," she said. "The front area is normally used for drug use. Back here is a safe space for any kids who come back here.”

Springboard Collaborative project manager Trish Hill, who conducts outreach in the Georgetown encampment, worries children may be separated from their parents and sent into the foster system if they move into woodland encampments.

“Nobody should lose their children because there were issues with them being removed from a motel," she said. "And it wouldn't do any good — the foster care system is already overwhelmed." But she adds that the encampment is not a safe place for families with children. "It's not fair to the families who are being let go to leave them with the choices of coming back here or letting their children go. There should be a better choice."

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