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State extends pandemic emergency shelter program through September

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.

Delaware’s Department of Health and Social Services obtained funding to extend its pandemic emergency shelter program until the end of September.

DHSS and Gov. John Carney’s office assembled the $900,000 needed to extend the program one month from multiple sources – namely projects using American Rescue Plan Act dollars that finished under-budget.

All but one of the motels that participated in the shelter program will continue to accept the state's vouchers through September; the outlier is a motel in Dover that will end its participation mid-month to make room for attendees of the Firefly Music Festival.

For DHSS clients who remain in motels rooms paid for through the program, the extension comes with new requirements: In order to receive vouchers through September, they need to check in weekly with case managers and the Division of State Service Centers and provide proof that they are searching for housing. That proof, in the form of a weekly report documenting housing options they have considered, will not require clients to apply for rental units; according to DHSS Deputy Secretary Daniel Walker, his agency did not intend to require clients to pay multiple rental application fees per week in order to continue receiving emergency shelter vouchers.

“These standards aren’t necessarily new to DHSS,” Walker said, “but they are new to the pandemic shelter program." The same standards apply to participants in another DHSS emergency shelter program that predates the pandemic; in contrast to the pandemic emergency shelter program, which housed some clients for more than two years, the older program is intended to provide short-term shelter.

Working-age clients will also be required to show proof that they are searching for employment, though those who are already employed or have disabilities will be exempted from that requirement. Walker noted that the vast majority of clients are employed – in places ranging from Wawas to hospitals – but do not earn enough to hold their own in Delaware's rental market, so case managers are also prepared to help clients find better-paid opportunities. “We are extending services to those who may want to find other employment so that they’re more appealing to our housing partners," he said.

DHSS reports that roughly a quarter of the more than 400 households relying on the program in early August have already left their motel rooms in anticipation of the original August 31 deadline.

Those who left won’t be able to return to the program, though Walker says they can work with DHSS as they search for housing. In some cases, households that left motels moved into tent encampments.

Others who have already left their motel rooms may be eligible for the short-term emergency voucher program, and some may qualify for federal assistance to cover costs of storing personal items while they search for new housing.

Walker added that the additional month gives DHSS and its partners time to help clients acquire essential documents, including medical records and copies of birth certificates and social security cards, that will be vital to finding stable housing, employment and healthcare after the program's end.

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