‘There's nowhere for them to go’: Delaware sees dramatic hike in homelessness amid COVID-19 pandemic

José Ignacio Castañeda Perez
Delaware News Journal

Delaware has seen a 35% increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness in the past year, though local experts say the total is likely far higher due to the challenges of counting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Almost 60% of that increase were children, according to a recent report from the Housing Alliance Delaware, a statewide nonprofit that performed the countand aims to alleviate issues facing the homeless population. 

The count didn't include unsheltered people living in cars and encampments due to COVID-19 precautions and logistical challenges this year – communities that would drive up the total number of people experiencing homeless across Delaware.

“Even though they didn't count the unsheltered, which should have brought the count down, the count went up by thirty five percent,” said Stephen Metraux, director of the University of Delaware’s Center for Community Research and Service.

Hope Center resident Robert Johnson (who had pulled down his mask as he was eating one of the offered post-vaccination snacks) said he was glad for his chance at a COVID vaccination at a county-sponsored event at the New Castle County facility, Wednesday, March 31, 2021.

Experts say the increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness is due to a variety of factors, including a lack of affordable housing and COVID-19 safety concerns that led people to stay in hotels and motels for extended periods of time.

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In response, increased funds and rapid rehousing programs in the state are helping members of the homeless population find and maintain stable housing. 

‘There's nowhere for them to go’

Metraux doesn’t attribute the increase to a new influx of people, but instead to the fact that more people are finding it harder to leave the homeless population and find permanent housing.

Additionally, he said, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed some of the weaknesses in systems meant to help the homeless population find housing – both long- and short-term. 

Hope Center resident Heather Logan speaks about receiving her first COVID vaccination during a vaccination event at the New Castle County facility, Wednesday, March 31, 2021. One aim of the event was to get as many of the eligible residents vaccinated as possible.

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Shelters across the state reduced their capacities and imposed restrictions, such as requiring a negative COVID-19 test upon entry, in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus. The increased requirements to be admitted into a sometimes crowded shelter during the pandemic discouraged many from staying there. 

“You've got this situation now where shelters are less than ideal places to stay when you're homeless,” Metraux said. “Shelters are just congregate places and people are afraid of getting COVID.” 

In an effort to mitigate these exacerbated conditions, state-run centers and nonprofit organizations housed people experiencing homelessness in hotels and motels, which proved to be safer than shelters during the pandemic. 

Last December, New Castle County's Hope Center opened its doors as a long-term shelter to members of the homeless community during the height of the pandemic in Delaware. The center, a former Sheraton hotel, offers health screenings, mental health services and COVID-19-related resources to its residents. 

The bedroom of a suite used to house residents at the Hope Center.

In March, the center, located on Airport Road off of I-95, worked to vaccinate its residents against COVID-19 in an effort to protect one of the state's most vulnerable populations. 

"Who knows if I'd have been able to get this," said Robert Johnson, a resident at the center after receiving his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. "I have that extra sense of security that I don't have to worry about it."

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Rachel Stucker, executive director of Housing Alliance Delaware, emphasized the importance of these resources in relocating people from overcrowded and unsafe living conditions into safer alternatives. 

“Resources were made available, and it allowed us to see the true need of folks who may otherwise not necessarily be homeless, but be living right on the edge,” Stucker said. 

More than half of people experiencing homelessness were staying at a hotel or motel at the time of the count in January, according to the report. Many of these people continued their stay due to a lack of resources and safe, affordable housing.

“There's nowhere for them to go,” Metraux said. “People are staying in the hotels and motels and they're not leaving, and that basically accounts for the increase in the population size.”

The report attributed the dramatic influx of homelessness in the state to an “affordable housing crisis” that forces many to rely on temporary shelter for too long. The report goes on to state that Delaware has a shortage of 20,000 affordable housing units for the lowest-income households.

“If you can't afford market rent, you're going to have a really hard time getting housing,” Metraux said. 

Hope Center resident Loralai Delacruz, left, holds her newborn daughter Meredith Delacruz Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, in the lobby of the Hope Center.

This also comes during a housing market boom, prompting many private landlords to offload properties at a time when property values are higher than they've been in recent memory. This in turn has had a ripple effect on the rental market, limiting affordable and available properties.

Rapid rehousing programs across the state are helping people experiencing homelessness relocate into permanent housing. In 2020, Delaware jurisdictions issued more than $1.5 million in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development relief funding to these programs, the report states. 

“I feel very hopeful that those folks will be back into stable housing in the community this year, along with some support, but it's not going to be easy,” Stucker said. 

Contact the reporter at jcastaneda1@delawareonline.com or connect with him on Twitter @joseicastaneda.