For some, finding and keeping a home is a struggle. For community activists, the search for solutions goes on.
From the Holiday 2016 issue
It has been more than 2½ years since what was known as Tent City, a transient community set up in a wooded area near Midway, was dismantled by police. But Janet Idema still cries when she tells the story of that night, and of helping some of the people living there who suddenly found themselves with no place to stay.
Idema is president of the board
of directors of Immanuel Shelter, a Rehoboth-area cold-weather refuge for the homeless. “The people had just lost their home, and they were terrified,” she recalls. “But we were able to convince some of them to come and stay with us.”
Five Tent City denizens, one of them a woman, went to Immanuel. But they balked at staying when they saw that men and women were segregated in the shelter, with the former on one side of a big room and the latter on the other. “They were used to being together, and they all wanted to sleep in the same area,” Idema explains.
In the end, shelter volunteers created a sleeping space just for the former Tent City residents. “They were so grateful,” Idema says, tears welling in her eyes. “And one of them said one of the most touching things ever said to me. He said, ‘Thank you so much. Now I have my family with me.’”
Bill (at his request, Delaware Beach Life is not using his real name) was one of those displaced residents who slept in the shelter that night. He was employed then at the Walmart on Route 1, near Tent City, and returned from work to see his tent and all of his belonging tossed into a dump truck.
“They threw away everything,” he says. “All of my clothes — I was left with what I had on.”
Bill is still homeless (see “Bill’s Story” on page 72). Last winter, he lived at and managed a men’s shelter in Bethany Beach and hopes to find a similar position again this winter.
He looks back with gratitude on that night when Immanuel Shelter took in him and his friends. “Janet and the volunteers there are the best,” Bill says. “They have done a lot for homeless people.”
“I wasn’t used to that kind of thing,” he adds. “Somebody was there to help. What I got out of Janet and her staff was hope.”
Slipping into homelessness
Bill lives in Rehoboth Beach. When he has the money, he sleeps in a hotel room, often inviting others without beds to join him. Other nights he spends in the home of a friend, and sometimes he sleeps outside, in one of the several safe spots he has identified around town.
He is hardly the only Sussex Countian without a permanent home. The state’s 2016 one-night survey on page 70, conducted on Jan. 27 by the Homeless Planning Council of Delaware, found 97 homeless people in Sussex County. According to the planning council, 2,327 Delawareans were homeless at some point in 2015.
Last winter, the Immanuel Shelter helped 111 people. Of those, most went on to find housing in transitional homes or by sharing apartments with others. “But about 20 percent are chronically homeless,” Idema adds.
In the southern region of coastal Delaware, the Bethany shelter where Bill lived and worked took care of 32 men last winter. The facility, in the Bethany Beach Christian Church complex and operated by SOUL (Serving Others Under the Lord) Ministries, could handle 12 men at a time. “We had a couple of hiccups, but I helped 27 men who came there find jobs and places to live,” Bill notes.
SOUL Ministries was founded four years ago by husband and wife Eric and Cherith Snyder. They plan to open a men’s shelter again this winter, Cherith says. In addition, they recently opened HOM, or House of Mercy. The Selbyville operation offers a thrift store, church and “transformational center,” to help clients solve problems that are keeping them on the streets, and once a week the Snyders deliver meals to the homeless who are living on the street.
“We want to let them know that they are worth more than the situation that they are in,” Cherith says. “We want to lift them up, to give them hope that this isn’t the best it’s going to get. What we are doing isn’t just about the food and the shelter. Our biggest goal is to say something that clicks with them, something that might be the kick in the pants that they need.”
Several years ago, the couple were themselves on the verge of homelessness. When Eric lost his job — which, his wife says, paid him a six-figure income — they had to give up the home that they were buying and move into a rental.
“Thank God for family,” Cherith says. “We didn’t crack. But it was an eye-opening experience for us. Homelessness is a concept that’s totally there for a lot of us.”
Since the economic downturn in 2007, she asserts, most Delawareans “are just one paycheck away from homelessness.”
Idema, a retired psychiatric clinical nurse specialist who moved to Delaware from New York City, agrees. “I could be homeless tomorrow,” she says. “You lose a job, you lose the support of a family member, and everything changes.
From what I see, only a small percentage of homeless people, maybe 4 or 5 percent, are in this situation because of choices that they made. And even then — maybe because of some trauma they’ve suffered, maybe because of drug abuse or mental illness — they aren’t making those decisions with a sound decision-making process. So even that is really no choice at all.”
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