Amid controversy, homeless shelter in Wilmington fights to keep offering beds

Residents are worried what will happen to them if the shelter closes. The state doesn't seem to trust the shelter after a fiscal mismanagement investigation.

Tony House

After Safe Space lost its state contract, executive director Tony House says he worries what will happen to its residents. (Zoë Read/WHYY/)

Since September, William, who was addicted to heroin for a decade, has been a client at SafeSpace, a residential treatment program in Wilmington for those with behavioral health issues.

Before entering the facility, which also acts as an emergency shelter, he slept anywhere he could find — the train station, the hospital, an abandoned house. William said he got high to mask the pain and embarrassment he felt from living on the streets. He was often unable to shower or find a facility that would allow him to use the restroom.

SafeSpace has helped him address his mental health and stay sober. It puts a roof over his head and food in his stomach.

However, he and dozens of other residents are searching for another option. Without a state contract renewal, SafeSpace must raise more than $212,000 by the end of the month to remain open through March.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

William is worried he’ll be pushed out.

“I would literally try to hook up with some other people or buy a tent and get a spot in the woods somewhere,” William said. “I’m doing the best I can. I don’t get in any trouble. I don’t do anything wrong, and I don’t want to do anything wrong.

“I don’t want to get high, but as the mental health problems go for me — to expect to go to my psychiatrist when you’re homeless and living on the street — it ain’t happening. To actually live on the streets when it’s freezing cold out, you shiver all day, freeze all night. Getting high is like a blanket.”

William and the other SafeSpace residents quoted in this story agreed to speak on the condition that their last names would not be used.

An uphill battle

The state’s Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health had been giving the facility $850,000 annually to operate its program, which includes residential treatment for individuals with severe and persistent mental health issues. The founder also created an emergency walk-in shelter for homeless individuals who do not have that diagnosis.

Those in the residential program have first priority to the facility’s 65 beds. Operators often make space for more people on an emergency basis, particularly in the winter months.

A spokesman for the Department of Health, which oversees the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, said the funding process involves a highly competitive review. This year’s proposal submitted by SafeSpace scored low compared with other submissions, and the state does not believe it will provide quality programming, he said. He added that past performance also was an issue.

Although the state spokesman did not point to any specific issue, onlookers believe the reputation of the facility — which used to be called the Rick VanStory Center — was clouded last year when police investigated the possible misappropriation or theft of at least $125,000 of its funds. Following the inquiry, founder Alan Conover was fired, and bookkeeper Larry Moody left the agency.

The facility has since changed its name, hired a different accounting firm, worked with another agency to develop its business management style and brought on new board members.

Those changes haven’t seemed to do much to rebuild the public’s trust. After operators learned the facility would not receive state funding in June, they’ve raised only about $400 from private individuals.

“In terms of this barrier of image — no it has not changed. We have not been able to secure the relationships we need to access funding because of image,” said board chair Allen Jones. “Things have gotten worse. It’s still an uphill battle for us.”

Since the contract was not rewarded, members of SafeSpace and its partners, such as Christiana Care and the Department of Correction, have urged the state to intervene.

Members of the organization say they also have reached out to city, county and state leaders, but have been met with resistance. A spokesman for the city said it does not have the resources to fund shelters.

In an email, a spokesman for Gov. John Carney wrote:

“Governor Carney understands the concerns expressed by SafeSpace, and the need for shelter services, especially during cold winter months. DSAMH is transitioning those eligible for its services to new supported housing, along with appropriate clinical services. The state works with Housing Alliance Delaware on short-term and permanent housing solutions for Delawareans in need, and provides short-term vouchers to meet emergency housing needs. This is an important issue that Carney takes very seriously.”

Year-round need

SafeSpace’s organizers say while the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health is taking steps to transition its residential program participants into other housing options, they worry for those who may not qualify for treatment programs — as well as the many individuals who use the emergency overnight shelter.

The state, which does offer a hotel voucher program, said several organizations and churches perform homeless outreach when a Code Purple is announced. Code Purple shelters open their doors from Dec. 1 until March 31 when temperatures fall to 32 degrees or below overnight.

However, Jones argued, SafeSpace and Wilmington’s Sunday Breakfast Mission are the only two organizations in the area that offer emergency shelter year-round.

“Summer is hot too, it’s not comfortable sleeping outside in the heat. Spring can be very challenging. A lot of people have allergies. I think they think homeless people are a different type of human being. Fall can be very cold,” Jones said. “Emergency shelter is a 24/7 issue that needs to be addressed.”

The shelter’s organizers say SafeSpace also is more accommodating than others in the area that have religious requirements, limit the number of nights in a row one can stay, or restrict individuals with certain criminal records.

‘Watch your back’

SafeSpace resident Candy said, due to a history that she would not divulge because she has a daughter, she is not qualified to stay in similar facilities. After being hospitalized at Wilmington Hospital for being suicidal, she said she was referred to the facility because it was the only organization that would accept her.

“When all odds are against you, and you have no hope, you just want to give up,” she said. “And then there’s a place like this that does care, that does want to help you, and get on housing, get on your feet and give you a chance.”

Candy said she’s concerned she won’t find alternative housing and will be forced on the streets — where she fears being raped or killed. She was homeless in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and does not want to face the same trauma in Wilmington.

“The streets aren’t very friendly to women,” Candy said. “It was scary. It was shameful. It was like you have to constantly watch your back.”

Yajaira, another resident, said she entered SafeSpace two months ago after her release from jail. The 32-year-old, who walks with the aid of a cane due to cerebral palsy, said she no longer has a home. Yajaira said she slept on a bench in a park where drug dealing was rampant. While another emergency shelter only gave her a bed for three nights, SafeSpace has never kicked her out. Now she has her job back and is looking for permanent housing.

“I’m in the process of looking for housing, but I’m trying to get the help I need to reintegrate into society,” Yajaira said. “It’s hard for me to find housing because of the conviction I have because I’m still in court.”

Jones said he and the other SafeSpace organizers fear what will happen to those who use the facility if it closes down at the end of the year.

“Those who are recovering are going to take 10 steps backwards,” he said. “There’s a whole psychological dynamic that happens. People on addictions — the cause of that is trauma. This is traumatic, because this becomes family, this becomes home, this becomes a place where shaming and condemnation is set aside, and you can feel like a person again.”

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal