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Number of people experiencing homelessness in Delaware doubled over past two years

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.

An annual point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness in Delaware conducted earlier this year revealed an alarming statistic: twice as many people were unhoused in the state in early 2022 than were in early 2020, with the most substantial increase in Sussex County.

Delaware Public Media's Paul Kiefer reports on rising numbers of people experiencing homelessness in Delaware.

On an evening in late February, teams of volunteers ventured out into fields, forests and abandoned houses to conduct a headcount of people living unsheltered in Delaware. Others tallied the number of people living in emergency shelters, motels and transitional housing.

When the nonprofit Housing Alliance Delaware combined the numbers, it found 2,369 people experiencing homelessness in Delaware this winter: more than twice as many people than in January 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.

According to many unhoused people and outreach workers, even that alarming figure is an undercount.

Some who have been homeless for years describe facing new hurdles when seeking healthcare or housing support during the pandemic. Standing in the shadow of a church in downtown Dover, Kevin Hill — who says he has spent the better part of a decade unhoused — recalls that when COVID-19 cases surged, he found himself waiting in emergency room lobbies until early in the morning. He adds that hospitals often discharged him without ever seeing an examination room.

“They don’t want you in the hospital because of the pandemic - because of COVID," he said. "There’s nowhere else you can go but onto the streets.”

But people like Hill — people living unsheltered, whether on a sidewalk in Dover or in a tent near Georgetown — made up a relatively small share of the total number of unhoused people tallied in this year’s point-in-time count. Volunteers found only 154 people living unsheltered statewide, compared to the 2,215 living in emergency shelters.

Steve Metraux head shot.jpeg
Steve Metraux
Steve Metraux, Director of the Center for Community Research and Service at the University of Delaware

The largest group, and the fastest growing, are people living in hotels and motels, paid for with vouchers provided by Delaware’s Division of State Service Centers. Steve Metraux, the Director of the Center for Community Research and Service at the University of Delaware, says the State Service Centers have become a centerpiece of the state’s response to homelessness.

"They are now the single largest shelter provider for homeless households in Delaware," he said. "They provide more hotel and motel services than all of the shelter and transitional housing providers in Delaware combined.”

Hotels and motels are an especially vital resource for families experiencing homelessness, whose numbers nearly tripled during the pandemic. This year, a third of the people experiencing homelessness in Delaware – at least those who were counted in February – are children, and most live in hotels and motels.

Many who took part in the count attest that the sudden surge of people seeking hotel vouchers revealed a crisis that was lurking beneath the surface in Delaware long before the pandemic. Susan Kent, the director of the nonprofit Better Homes of Seaford, says the pandemic brought many people already teetering on the edge of homelessness – doubled up in a family member’s apartment, for instance – onto the radar of homeless service providers.

Susan Kent headshot.jpg
Susan Kent
Susan Kent, director of Better Homes of Seaford

“When COVID happened, the resources for hotels became available to be able to quarantine, to shelter in place," she said. "When that happened, people didn't want Aunt Susie staying anymore, because you might give me COVID and I might die, you know. It brought forward the already existing issue of people being unstably housed.”

A key driver of that previously unseen housing instability is Delaware’s shortage of affordable housing – a crisis that is especially acute in Sussex County. In the years before the COVID-19 pandemic, more than half of people experiencing homelessness were in New Castle County. This year, New Castle County made up only 43 percent of the total, and more than one in three people experiencing homelessness was in Sussex County.

Many of the people experiencing homelessness in Sussex County, Kent said, are simply unable to keep up with rising rents amid a shortage of affordable housing.

“There's the housing shortage plus the unaffordability problem," she said. "Either one will count you out, but they're both happening at the same time in Sussex because we became this great place to go and vacation.”

For families who moved into hotels in Sussex County during the pandemic, the beginning of this year’s tourism season could create a new crisis as hotels begin charging their normal nightly rates for rooms.

“When people started coming back, they were like, 'well, if you want to pay the weekly rate, it’s $300 a night," Kent said. "Obviously, they're not in business to be a homeless shelter. When things were closed, they were able to profit – well, not profit – they were able to stay in business because of people sheltering in place. But as soon as COVID restrictions were lifted, they went back to regular rates.”

“There's the housing shortage plus the unaffordability problem. Either one will count you out, but they're both happening at the same time in Sussex because we became this great place to go and vacation.”
Susan Kent, director of Better Homes of Seaford

Because of the competition for hotel rooms in Sussex County, Metraux says some families from Sussex have landed in motels further north. But he argues even those who aren’t imminently at risk of losing their hotel rooms aren’t receiving the kind of support they need to find stability in the long term.

"All of a sudden they were basically parked these hotels and motels for months at a time without any clear exit strategy and housing tight," he said. "There's just very little case management or any other social services systems to get families out.”

The same is true for the hundreds of people living unsheltered in Delaware - a group that Kent and other service providers say was seriously undercounted this year, especially in Kent and Sussex Counties. "We just didn't count them," she said, in part because volunteers are sometimes wary of visiting out-of-the-way encampments. "We struggle with this every year."

"Here, in the last two weeks, we’ve had at least one new person every night. And as many as four new people in a night. Especially women."
Teresa Campbell, emergency shelter volunteer in Dover

Teresa Campbell, a volunteer at an emergency shelter in Dover that often serves people living unsheltered, says she’s seen a steady stream of new faces in recent months.

"Here, in the last two weeks, we’ve had at least one new person every night," she said. "And as many as four new people in a night. Especially women."

Kent and others say there’s no single source behind the rising number of people living unsheltered in fields, highway bypasses and abandoned buildings across southern Delaware. Some are poultry workers who lost their housing during the pandemic; some have long-term behavioral and mental health challenges; some are survivors of domestic violence. Some, like Oliver Egan, who currently moves between campsites in Sussex and Kent Counties, were released from prison with nowhere to go. Though he left prison on foot, Egan says he fared better than some — at least he knew how to make his way to Georgetown after leaving the Sussex Correctional Institution.

"[Sussex Correctional Institution] is out in the boonies in Sussex County," he said. "The Georgetown hub is not far away, but if you don’t know, you don’t know.”

Meanwhile, for families in motels and people camping in forests, the largest hurdle to escaping homelessness is often one of the reasons they became homeless: there simply isn’t enough housing to go around.

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