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End of pandemic shelter program spurs surge in demand for homeless services

A Dover motel in May 2022.
Paul Kiefer
Delaware Public Media
As the pandemic took hold, many Delawareans with unstable housing turned to motels and hotels for temporary housing.

Delaware’s pandemic emergency shelter program, which housed thousands in motels over the past two years, ends on Saturday.

The 189 households still in motels as part of the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) program will now need new accommodations, and service providers expect a surge in demand for shelter beds, transportation and storage – demand that some providers worry could be hard to meet.

Milford Advocacy for the Homeless founder Martha Gery says her volunteer group is already receiving calls from people leaving nearby motels. Milford doesn’t have a shelter, so her group is offering food, water and – for those planning to live in their cars – gas money.

“We also tell them that if they need a tent, maybe they can stay on a family property – but we tell them that they squat somewhere else, they might be arrested," she said. "But we will provide them with a tent, tarp and a sleeping bag so that they can have some shelter.”

Because of Saturday’s rainy forecast, Gery notes her organization is already out of tents and tarps — supplies they also distribute to the existing encampments in Milford.

She also worries that without easy access to first aid kits or public bathrooms, some people leaving motels may encounter hygiene problems if their only option is to move into a tent.

Every household has provided Delaware’s State Services Centers and Division of Social Services case managers a relocation plan. For those who plan to live with relatives or seek out a bed at the Saturday Breakfast Mission in Wilmington, the weekend could also bring unexpected logistical challenges. Kim Eppehimer of Friendship House in Wilmington says one challenge may be moving belongings from the motels to wherever people plan to go next, especially in a rainstorm.

“We don’t know for sure how many people have been able to dispose of things and put things in storage," she said. "Have they worked with family members on how much stuff they have and what they can take? I don’t know what the worst case will look like.”

For the 77 households remaining in Sussex and Kent County motels, conventional homeless shelter options will be especially scarce. Housing Alliance Delaware Director Rachael Stucker says that the shortage of shelter beds has complicated plans to provide support to those moving out of motels on Saturday.

"We plan to have staff available to do some coordination," she said, "but we have had trouble finding shelters with the staff or space to accommodate new people."

Most motels that participated in the voucher program will allow households to remain if they pay the $50-per-night rate previously covered by the vouchers; some motels will charge more, and only one motel has offered a lower rate. Roughly a third of the households will be able to stay in their motel rooms for several more days using a short-term voucher program that predates the pandemic but will need to find new accommodations later in October.

The program, which relied on American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars to pay for rooms at over a dozen motels statewide during the pandemic, was initially expected to run out of funding at the end of August. DHSS worked with Governor John Carney's office to collect an additional $900,00 to extend the program through September — a task accomplished using spare ARPA funds from projects that finished under-budget. The roughly 100 households who left their motel rooms in August in anticipation of the earlier end date, however, were not able to return to the motels for the remainder of the program.

Better Homes of Seaford Director Susan Kent argues that despite the daunting prospects faced by those leaving the motels, the pandemic emergency shelter program was a worthy effort to keep Delawareans housed amidst both a pandemic and an increasingly severe housing crisis.

"The program was never designed nor funded to go on forever," she said. "After multiple extensions, this resource ends and exposes once again [that] we have a significant affordable housing shortage."

In Milford, Gery says that over the next few months, Delaware communities should begin considering how to accommodate a likely surge in people experiencing unsheltered homelessness.

"Where are people going to stay?" she asked. "The things that have been problems that have been hidden in the hotels are now going to be obvious, and for towns like ours, it's going to be challenging."

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