The razing of a ‘Tent City’ encampment highlights the plight of the homeless and the frustration  of those who help them

By James Diehl  |  Photograph by Marc Clery
From the June 2014 Issue

tent-cityQuite a crowd had gathered on the morning of April 5 — protesters, state police troopers, members of the media, curious onlookers who just happened to be driving along Route 1 at the time, even workers at the hotel under construction nearby. What they witnessed was the destruction of a “city” — albeit a makeshift one — in the woods adjacent to one of the state’s major highways, in one of southern Delaware’s most affluent areas.

But there were a few notable absentees during the final minutes of what the media and coastal Delaware community had dubbed “Tent City.” Those who called the area home were not there. Having packed up the day before, they were instead at a private home about 10 miles away, far from the prying eyes, the chants of demonstrators and the sad sight of witnessing their home’s demise.

They were licking their wounds, consoling one another over their loss. For most of them, the closure of Tent City was the latest in a string of tough luck, hard times and unfortunate incidents that had dead-ended in homelessness.

In a sense, that dead-end journey had also made them invisible: The campers were part of a societal problem that most coastal residents and visitors simply do not see. But the numbers don’t lie — two Rehoboth-area overnight shelters run jointly by Epworth United Methodist Church and the much smaller Faith United Methodist Church housed and fed nearly 100 homeless people during the harsh winter of 2013-14.

A good number of them had been denizens of Tent City at one time or another over the three years since Kevin James Reddy and two of his friends erected the first shelters in the area just north of the Rehoboth Presbyterian Church.

“We’ve always survived and we’re going to continue to survive,” says one of the displaced, who did not want to be identified, “but that was home for me.”

Perhaps speaking for many of the others, he adds, “It was where I wanted to be.”

There but for the grace . . .

The stories of those who pitched tents and lived within earshot of Route 1 are a mixed bag of sadness and despair. Between eight and 35 people lived there, depending on the season. Most were middle-age men, though there was also a 50-year-old woman, who recently learned she’s HIV-positive. All have experienced many of life’s great traumas and challenges: the death of someone close, divorce, unemployment, incarceration, alcoholism.

But they also are a testament to the strength of the human spirit. Says one 59-year-old man who survived the brutal winter at his temporary home in the woods: “I just take it day by day. That’s really all I can do, but I have faith in God that he’s going to pull me through this.”

The man, who also wished to remain anonymous, says he once worked as a bank loan officer but was “nudged” into an early retirement at age 51. If he makes it through this latest chapter in life, it will be largely due to the work and the hospitality of people like Eric and Cherith Snyder. The founders of SOUL Ministries (which stands for Serving Others Under the Lord and is housed at Bethel Tabernacle Church in Clarksville), the Snyders have taken many of the area’s homeless under their wings, offering a variety of support.

When Tent City was shut down in April, the couple opened their home as a temporary shelter. They never gave a second thought to doing so.

“People look at their dirty clothes and the way they smell and they forget that they’re human,” says Cherith Snyder, who at age 33 is nonetheless called “Mom” by many former residents of Tent City. “We look behind all of those exterior things and their situations and we get to know them on a human level. They just need someone who is stern, but who will love them. And I do, I absolutely love them.”

Eric Snyder understands all too well the plight of the people he today devotes his life to. He once spent his days toiling away at a well-paying job in the computer industry, and never really gave the homeless a second thought. That is, until he very nearly became one of them himself, after the economy took a nosedive a half-dozen years ago.

He says: “I went from six figures to no figures when the recession hit and my job ceased to exist. You can’t know someone until you’ve walked in their shoes, and we were that close to walking in their shoes. If not for the grace of God, we would have been homeless ourselves.”

Today, Snyder and his wife live gratefully in a home owned by their church and pay their bills by working odd jobs a few days a week, but their real passion is assisting coastal Delaware’s homeless. And they were the ones who delivered the somber news one chilly night in late March that Tent City was on borrowed time.

It was a difficult moment for all concerned. “I was really upset at first,” recalls a three-year resident of the encampment, “but I guess God just has better things in store for us. I guess it was just time to go.”

Nowhere to turn?

The site, owned by Robert B. Hood of Snohomish, Wash., was cleared by police that first Saturday in April. But the question looming then still lingers in the aftermath: What happens next to those affected?

 * * *

To Read This Full Story:

Buy this issue online

Buy on a newsstand