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Loss of shelter beds drives sharp decline in annual count of homeless Delawareans

The Classic Motel in Georgetown, Delaware.
Paul Kiefer
Delaware Public Media
The Classic Motel in Georgetown is one of the few remaining motels offering weekly rates in the state.

This year’s census of people experiencing homelessness in Delaware found a sharp decline in the number of people living in shelters and other temporary housing arrangements, lowering the overall count to pre-pandemic levels.

But homeless service providers and homeless Delawareans themselves say that reversal doesn’t reflect an improvement in Delaware’s housing crisis.

Housing Alliance Delaware Director Rachael Stucker, whose organization coordinates the annual count, says much of the drop is the result of the end of Delaware's pandemic emergency shelter program, which provided long-term vouchers for motel rooms, in September.

During the pandemic, thousands moved into motels paid for by the state — more than one thousand people stayed in motels using state vouchers on an average night — making it easier to locate homeless households. Using data from the state service centers, Housing Alliance Delaware counted people relying on the pandemic emergency shelter program as homeless, doubling the state's total between 2020 and 2022.

This year, Housing Alliance Delaware counted only 1,047 people in shelters in February, compared to 2,215 in 2022.

The pandemic emergency shelter program was particularly effective at housing families with children who would have otherwise lived in cramped conditions with relatives, in cars or in other precarious arrangements; families with children made up a third of all households counted in 2022. Despite efforts to reach out to school districts to keep track of homeless children after the end of the pandemic emergency shelter program, families with children made up only 20 percent of the 2023 count.

Both homeless service providers and homeless Delawareans themselves say that former participants in the pandemic emergency shelter program have largely not found stable housing.

The gap between demand for affordable housing and the supply of affordable units has only grown since 2022, particularly in Sussex County, which saw the largest increase in homelessness during the pandemic. This year's count saw the number of people living in shelters in Sussex County plummet by nearly half.

Jeremy, who has lived at the Classic Motel in Georgetown with his fiancée and infant daughter since October, says many who used the state’s motel voucher program simply returned to unsheltered homelessness or other precarious arrangements and fell off the map.

“Most of them are just homeless people who were just getting help through the state," he said. "Now that they’re not getting help, they’re back outside."

Other homeless households, including Jeremy's family, have opted to remain in the few motels across the state that continue to offer week-to-week rates. He says nearly a dozen households who previously received vouchers through the pandemic emergency shelter program remain at the Classic Motel alone.

While some of those households have received short-term vouchers from the state since September through a program that predates the pandemic, most are paying for their rooms, meaning they weren't counted as homeless this year.

Jeremy's fiancée, who works at the Perdue Farms poultry processing facility in Georgetown, is the currently the family's breadwinner; Jeremy stays home to care for their daughter. They can hardly afford the $300-per-week rate at the motel, but the hefty security deposits — and credit checks — needed to rent an apartment leave more stable housing out of reach.

Given the shortage of affordable rental options and the number of low-income families living in motels, Jeremy says the state should consider buying several budget motels — including the Classic Motel — to serve as permanent housing.

"My fiancée would like to get a motel turned into efficiency apartments for low-income people," he said.

Homeless service providers also expected this year’s count of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness to fall, in part because of a rainstorm on the night of the count and in part because several of the largest encampments in Kent and Sussex Counties were cleared — either by residents or local law enforcement — in the month preceding the count.

After the clearance of encampments in Georgetown and Milford — each with more than 50 residents — volunteers struggled to find or reach those who had formed smaller camps nearby.

The volunteer teams also had limited reach: a team tasked with counting people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in western Sussex County, for instance, did not have time to visit encampments near Laurel and Delmar.

"Despite those conditions, we actually counted more people experiencing unsheltered homelessness this year than we did last year," Stucker said. "The number of people we counted as unsheltered on the night of the count – sleeping outside, in cars, in parks – increased by almost 30 percent from 2022 to 2023.”

That total — 198 people — is certainly an undercount, she adds. Whether the increase in unsheltered homelessness is a direct result of the end of the pandemic emergency shelter program is unclear.

But Stucker and other service providers underscore that while this year's count may appear to send mixed messages, the urgency of the crisis has not abated.

"It's been an awful few years for housing," said Friendship House CEO Kim Eppihimer, whose organization provides case management and transitional housing services in New Castle County. "We haven't yet got onto the right track."

Within the coming weeks, Delaware's General Assembly will finalize the state's 2024 budget, including a possible $101.5 million investment in affordable housing preservation and construction programs — the largest proposed housing investment in state history, albeit one that could take years to make a dent in Delaware's housing shortage.

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