The face of Delaware’s homeless children

 Sasha and her children, 4-year-old Lamere, 2-yera-old Serenity, and 1-year-old Sincere, play at a homeless shelter. (Zoe Read/WHYY)

Sasha and her children, 4-year-old Lamere, 2-yera-old Serenity, and 1-year-old Sincere, play at a homeless shelter. (Zoe Read/WHYY)

More children are facing homelessness in Delaware, according to studies.

Sasha, 23, eats dinner with her son Lemere, 4, daughter Serinity 2, and son Sincere, 1, on a typical Monday night.

It could be any other family dinner—the 4-year-old picks at the meat, potatoes and vegetables on his plate, fights over a toy with his little sister and has a mini-tantrum when his mother tells him not to play with ornaments off the Christmas tree.

But the setting isn’t a dining room—it’s a cafeteria with the atmosphere of a high school dinner room, and the family is surrounded by other women and children.

As Sasha, who’s expecting a fourth child, disciplines Lemere for misbehaving, an elderly woman picks up the other kids to give them some attention.

The kids then follow their mother to an elevator that leads to a playroom, where they can blow off some steam. Despite a modest amount of toys, the kids make the best of it—cushions suddenly turn into a horse, a motorcycle and a car.

Christmas is around the corner, but it won’t feel like a holiday until they’re in their own home.

“(Last year) they were happy with what they got, but I cried because it wasn’t like home,” Sasha said of living in a shelter. “I pray this year by Christmas I’ll be out of here or after Christmas I’ll have my own place.”

Dionna, 40, and her children Kevin, 6, Breona, 9, Darnezah, 10, and Nasir, 13, sit in silence during their 20 minute shuttle bus ride to a Newark church.

The family isn’t excited about the trip—it’s something they’ve been doing every day for the past two months—but it may be the last week they’ll ever have to sleep in God’s house.

The bus pulls up to the building, and the kids grab their belongings and run inside. They settle their items in a room they share, large enough for five single size mattresses to lay on the floor.

The church volunteers call the families to dinner, which consists of chicken, green beans and macaroni and cheese. Then the boys play and the girls paint the nails of women volunteers and play with their hair.

Breona says she can’t wait to have her own room with pink walls and Hello Kitty designs. Dionna just wants to sleep in peace in her new home.

“I’m happy, I’m ready to sleep in my own bed—and longer on days I don’t have to work,” she said.

Dionna, Sasha and their young kids, whose last names are omitted for their privacy, are only two of hundreds of families facing homelessness in Delaware.

Child homelessness is a glaring issue in Delaware, particularly in New Castle County, as parents lose jobs and homes during struggling times. Social workers say more and more children are experiencing homelessness, and many of them live in shelters, churches, motels—and even cars.

Children struggle with the instability of moving around from shelter to shelter, sometimes have difficulty in school and miss out on regular play dates with friends. However, often children are more adaptable than adults, and they find ways to cope while they’re experiencing turmoil.

Meanwhile social workers search high and low for homes for families waiting in shelters, and other families wait weeks to get into the limited spaces available at Delaware shelters.

“When people think of homelessness they often think of a single man or someone with mental illness,” said Phyllis Chamberlain, executive director of the Homeless Planning Council.

“And while that is a segment of the population there are really a lot of families with children, and that has been true for quite a number of years.”

Increased childhood homelessness in Delaware may be linked to a rise in childhood poverty in the state. According to a University of Delaware conducted report, almost one in five Delaware children, or 18 percent, are facing poverty—up from 14 percent in 2008. Nearly a third of children live in families where no parent has full-time employment.

Delaware’s Department of Education also reports an increase in students who are homeless. There were 3,858 homeless students in the 2012-2013 school year, compared to 3,486 the previous year.

The majority of those were “doubled up,” meaning they live with friends or other family members. However, 6.5 percent of them were living in shelters and 11 percent of them were unsheltered or living in motels.

The Homeless Planning Council, the official agency that refers homeless individuals and families to shelters and other resources, served an average of 641 children in 2014. The majority of children, 272 of them, were under 5. As of the end of November 2015, the council served 664 children, up from the previous year with still a month to go in the year. 

In Delaware there are 31 shelters that serve families and children with a total capacity of 569. This means a lot of children are without anywhere to go. They may seek out their own means, or use the state-run motel voucher program that provides families a voucher to pay for a room in participating motels.

“It’s not an issue that’s going away,” said Carolyn Gordon, executive director of Family Promise of Northern New Castle County, which provides social services to homeless families. “I always joke I would love to be an unemployed social worker and that hasn’t happened yet.”

Family Promise, an organization that has been around since the 80s and is currently in 42 states, teams up with congregations that provide temporary shelter and dinners, while the organization runs a day program, and provides resources like food, job placement and housing.

“It’s keeping it temporary and moving, and it’s not moving them into this bedroom of a shelter. It’s saying, ‘This is a temporary stop on your journey, this isn’t where you want to be and we know that,’” Gordon said.

“It’s going to be comfortable and it’s going to be filled with love and hospitality and hope and fun. But the goal is housing, so we’re going to keep it moving.” 

The path to homelessness

Dionna, from Wilmington, became homeless in June and was in her situation for about three months. After losing her job she moved in with a sick relative who she was caring for. When the relative got well again, Dionna, a single mom, says she couldn’t stay there anymore.

As of August she had a part-time job with the Port of Wilmington, but was looking for full-time employment and housing.

When Dionna first became homeless she took her children to a motel that she paid for herself, and when her money ran out she joined Family Promise.

“It wasn’t really that bad at the time because I was working. So a lot of times we weren’t actually there,” she says of the motel. “It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t a good thing either. The whole process was something to get used to.”

Sasha, also from Wilmington, has been homeless for one year. She said she moved in with her cousin after falling out with her mother at age 19, who she says chose her boyfriend over her. Sasha said her mother is now homeless too. After her cousin moved out of state, she said she had nowhere to go.

Sasha’s on-again/off-again boyfriend is the father of her children. He works, lives with his sister and sees his kids every other weekend.

Sasha has stayed at several shelters, and is currently a resident at the Salvation Army in Wilmington.

“I didn’t want to go, but I didn’t want me and my kids to be outside on the street, so I had to suck it up and make sure my kids had a roof over their head,” she said.

The Salvation Army has a 52-bed shelter for single women and women with their children. It provides meals and support services.  The shelter offers workshops every other week on topics like job preparedness, nutrition and money management. Salvation Army is a 30-day service, but it can expand to 90 days days if needed.

When Sasha, who didn’t graduate high school, first entered the program she didn’t work—now she has one part-time cleaning job, and is looking for a second job.

“If you want to get out of the predicament you’re in you have to get up and go for it. I didn’t have that, because I didn’t know how to get up and go,” she said. “Now I have three kids I have to get up and provide for them because no one’s going to provide for me.”

The demand for shelter has increased over the past five years, said Taiwo Sapara, director of the Salvation Army.

“There are no jobs out there. Most places now they tell you, even ShopRite and these stores, they take no less than a GED. Also low-cost housing is very limited now, so that’s another issue,” she said.  

“Singles, they can go to a family and say, ‘Can I stay here for a little while until I get back on my feet?’ Mothers with children, it’s hard for a family to say, ‘Okay, you can stay with us.’” 

How Homelessness Affects the Family 

Experiencing homelessness can be very traumatic for a family, Chamberlain said.

“The family is stressed, and children don’t have a stable place, and that’s bad for developmental issues,” she said.

“National research shows children who are homeless have higher rates of health issues, including asthma, and it’s also hard for children to perform well in school.”

Gordon said parents without employment can’t necessarily afford day care, which means a young child might not receive the same amount of attention they’re used to while their mother and father are out looking for housing or jobs.

Older kids may feel more embarrassed, and can be physically exhausted going to school during an unstable situation, she said.

Younger kids are usually adaptable, Gordon said, but often can sense their parents’ worry and distress.

“I think what can be hard for the kids is they pick up on the parents’ energy, and we try to remind the parents that, ‘If you’re stressed out, the kids are going to know that,’” Gordon said.

Sasha said the most difficult part about experiencing homelessness is when her oldest child asks questions about their situation.

“When my son be like, ‘Mom, I want to go home,’ and I can’t tell him, ‘We don’t have a home,’” she said. “The only thing I tell him is, ‘We’ll be home very soon.’ All I say is, ‘Okay, Mommy is trying.’”

Sasha has thought of giving up her baby boy, due in February, for adoption, frightened to bring another child up in an unstable environment.

“I don’t want to bring my baby to a shelter,” she said.

Dionna said it’s sometimes difficult for her and her kids to get along with the other families in her program.

“Some people don’t clean like I do and I might go over what they do. If it doesn’t look right I’m going to fix it,” she said.

“The children aren’t used to being around other kids. It’s a lot easier when you’re dealing with your own family and your own life.” 

She said the children handle the situation well, but their schedule is tiring.

Every morning the family wakes up at 5 a.m. and takes the shuttle to the day center. From there, Dionna takes her kids to the bus stop, and they go to school while Dionna works her part-time job, job hunts or house searches.

They return to the day center at 4 p.m. and wait until the shuttle arrives to take them back to the church where they have dinner, play games and go to bed. And every week is a new church, which means they’re constantly adapting to new environments.

“The hardest part for them is moving around,” she said. “They kind of take it in stride—the fact that they’re with me it doesn’t matter.”

Her kids said to get through difficult times they like to make each other laugh. The four siblings play what they’ve dubbed “the funny game,” for which one of them has to do something funny, while the others try not to laugh—the one who laughs first loses the game.

Dionna’s daughter Darnezah, 10, says she sometimes likes sleeping in churches, but there are some issues she struggles with.

“We got to get up early. We don’t have our own privacy. And we can’t do karate—I want to be able to get to my blue belt,” she said. “We have to share bathrooms and stuff. People leave their stuff on the floor and you have to pick up after them.”

Her little sister Breona, 9, said the churches provide soft beds that are “pretty comfortable.”

“When we first started my mom said, ‘Just relax and everything’s going to go by and hopefully we will have our own house,’” Breona said. “I didn’t want to be here and then I actually wanted to stay.”

However, while most church volunteers are very friendly, others make her feel uncomfortable.

“They don’t really talk to us,” Breona said. “It makes me feel like I did something wrong.”

In addition to providing social services, the state also helps children get through their education while in their situation. The Department of Education coordinates resources like federal dollars and grants, additional tutoring, transportation to and from schools, free and reduced lunch and fee forgiveness.

The department partners with local shelters, Head Start programs, Boys and Girls Clubs, food banks, religious organizations, the Department of Social Services and the Delaware Housing Authority and other local organizations.

For the 2015-2016 school year Delaware received $195,641 from the Education for Homeless Children and Youth Grant Award to pay for services for its homeless student population.

“Research shows when a student is homeless there’s a negative impact on a students’ emotional, social, psychological and academic well being,” said Michael Watson, chief academic officer at the Department of Education. 

“So many students experiencing homelessness also experience hunger, stress and developmental delays. All of these things can lead to academic failure.” 

School liaisons are responsible for coordinating services to students facing homelessness, and ensuring teachers understand their needs. 

“It’s really ensuring that our students’ emotional, social, psychological and academic needs are being met, and the schools and liaisons play a significant role to ensure that happens and it’s important we serve as bridge linking to those services,” Watson said.

Cars and Motels

If a family cannot get into a shelter they may be eligible for the states’ emergency assistance service’s temporary shelter payment, which has been in place since the mid-1980s.

A person can receive up to $1,200 over a 90-day period to pay for a room in a participating motel, including the Super Lodge, Budget Inn and the Relax Inn in New Castle, the Fairview Inn in Wilmington, plus other motels in the Newark area.

After the voucher has run out of money, an individual must wait another 12 months before reapplying. During that time, social services will try to seek free shelter for the person through the Homeless Planning Council, and they also must try to find a permanent residence.

When a family finds permanent residence, the state assists $450 towards it and $200 for related costs, such as utilities.

“Families who are homeless have a place to go while they’re seeking and trying to find permanent shelter,” said Joyce Mixon, regional administrator for New Castle County for the Division of State Service Center’s Family Support Services.

“Also it protects the children and it keeps the family intact.” 

Some motels are in less than safe neighborhoods, however. For example, the Fairview Inn is located next door to the Gold Club strip club that has been the location of recent shootings. The Attorney General’s office has tried to shut down the adult entertainment club, which blames the motel for its unruly clients.

However, Mixon says the motels are safe, and if there are any concerns about the families’ well-being social services will move them to another location. There have been incidents of cockroach infestations, and social services moved families until the problem was fixed, she said.

“Ideally we would prefer to put them in a shelter, so that’s why we seek free shelters first. I believe they are safer in a shelter,” Mixon said. “However, there are not enough shelters to house all those who are in need.”

Danielle, the manager at Fairview Inn who would not release her full name, said the voucher program helps the business because they’re able fill empty rooms. She said they can take between 30 and 70 families per week.

Danielle said she doesn’t have any kind of a relationship with the families.

“It’s strictly business,” she said.

Danielle said safety is a top priority, and the motel has 24-hour surveillance on the property to protect the families.

Raj Patel, the manager at Budget Inn, said he believes there is tight security at his motel. He said if there’s an emergency he takes care of the families.

“Sometimes a family or lady comes in with a newborn child and something is wrong, we call the ambulance,” he said. “Sometimes there is a problem with the room and we change their room immediately.”

Lorraine, 48, and her daughter Rhonda, 29, and her son Larry, 18, have been homeless since the end of September and have used the motel voucher program because they can’t get shelter. 

Part of the issue is that they’re all considered adults, even though Larry only recently turned 18 and Rhonda has an illness that prevents her from working.

The family, whose full names are omitted for their privacy, said they don’t want to separate, or leave behind their 12-year-old labradoodle.

Rhonda can’t work or be by herself because of her medical condition, Chiari Malformation, a brain illness where the skull stops growing and the brain continues to grow into the spinal canal. She’s scheduled for surgery in January, but is required to have bed rest afterwards.

After becoming homeless, the family moved into the Red Roof Inn in Newark, where they stayed for about nine days on their own money. When money ran out they moved into their car. That’s when the state provided them a motel voucher.

They say they were happy at the motel, and could see a light at the end of the tunnel. The room had two big beds, a TV, a fridge and a microwave. Sometimes they would sneak over to the motel next door to eat breakfast.

“It was better than the car. It was a good experience. We were all in there together,” Lorraine said.

However, trouble soon struck when Lorraine’s husband and step-father to her children had a heart attack and died in the motel room. She still gets emotional talking about her “Sugar Bear,” his pet name which is tattooed on her left arm.

“He kept telling me all day, ‘I’m so stressed out,’” Lorraine said.  “He felt like a failure because he couldn’t support us. I told him it’s not his fault.”

During their time of mourning the motel owners bought a suit for Larry to wear at the funeral and gave Lorraine flowers.

When the family ran out of money on their motel voucher around Thanksgiving they moved back into the car. They usually park at Delaware Park or Walmart—anywhere that’s 24 hours.

“Sometimes security rides by and they’ll see us. And we’ll say, ‘My husband’s in there and we’re waiting for him to come out,’” Lorraine said.

It’s cold—and sometimes they don’t have enough money for gas to keep running the car for the heat. Sometimes they go to an emergency room just so they can sit and get warm.

“Every day is one of those days you can’t wait to go home, but you can’t go home,” Rhonda said.

Larry works a part-time minimum wage job to help pay the car payment, and anything else they need. He sometimes sneaks out food for his sister and mother at the end of the work day.

Larry doesn’t do anything a normal teenage young man would do. He may be going out with a girlfriend, or training to be a car mechanic or an HVAC specialist—something he planned to get certified in at Delaware Technical Institute.

“I just work. I need to do more of it, find a better job, because nothing’s working,” Larry said. “I feel like all I can do is focus because I need that job.”

He said he doesn’t get much sleep and sometimes struggles to go to work the next day.

“I go to sleep in a bad mood,” Larry said. “It’s hard to go to work and be alright, and getting frustrated at home.”

While Rhonda and Lorraine wash up in bathrooms in places like a McDonalds, Larry has one friend he visits to wash up and change his clothes when he can.

Besides that one friend, he’s lost touch with all his other friends because he’s too embarrassed to tell them about his situation. And even if they did know, he said he wouldn’t be able to pay for a night out.

“If I can’t change my clothes—I don’t want to go out with them looking the way I am,” Larry said.

His mother, who says she can’t work because of a bad back, and his sister say they feel terrible that he has to support them at his age.

“It’s like he’s working for nothing,” Rhonda said. “You’re busting your butt for minimum wage and you can’t do anything to show for it. It’s not like it’s helping us get in anywhere.”

The family says they’ve tried every organization and church they can think of to try and get help, but no one can offer them anything.

“I just can’t believe you can help all these people overseas but Americans can’t get help, living in a car, they can’t get funding, that just shocks me,” Lorraine said.  

Moving Forward

While there is a lot of help for homeless families in Delaware, social workers say more needs to be done.

“There’s a preference to do the direct financial assistance, rather than pay an extraordinary case manager that’s schmoozing with the landlord, bypassing credit checks, getting the security deposit to be paid in portions over time,” Gordon said.

“I would advocate pay that case manager so the family can own their own housing and be empowered to pay their own security deposit and pay their own rent, as opposed to throwing money at the housing.”

She said she read a statistic there’s enough vacant properties in the nation for every homeless person to have six.

“Why are there people sleeping in their cars, and why are there kids bouncing around shelters, and millions of dollars are coming in to the state of Delaware to create programming and shelter and innovative programming when really we could just put people in homes?” Gordon said.

Chamberlain said there’s a misconception in society that homelessness is a choice, which means there’s not enough focus on how to change the statistics. 

“Tax payers are paying for homelessness because of the number of people using emergency rooms when they don’t need to and the number of people getting arrested when they wouldn’t be getting arrested if they had a place to stay,” she said. “The cost of providing housing saves money on those systems.”

Chamberlain said shelters are critical resources; however, they aren’t always ideal as they sometimes aren’t safe or stable.

Rapid rehousing pulls families out of motels and shelters and into housing of their own, makes funding available to pay for rent until they can pay on their own and provides social services. Providers find affordable housing that individuals and families will be able to afford on their own.

“The solution is really housing,” Chamberlain said.  “It really is effective at getting people out of homelessness and getting into housing. The longer you’re in that situation the harder it is to get out. So we want to focus on decreasing the length of time people are homeless because it affects them physically and mentally.”

The transition back into housing can be difficult, and many families continue to struggle financially for a while before they get back on their feet. Sapara said her organization refers families to several resources, such as a food pantry, after they move into a home. Salvation Army residents that find housing can still call the organization for referrals, Sapara said.

Sometimes families do return to the shelter, however, she said.

“Some of them will leave and get a job and everything seems okay and then we’ll get them back again,” Sapara said.

“The job they get is usually a low-paid job. They’re not able to make the rent, things like that. We have to help them out in a way to get them back on their feet.”

A few days before Christmas the Salvation Army looks a lot emptier than a few weeks earlier. Residents are moving out slowly, but surely.

Sasha sits in the cafeteria with her kids, waiting for the last workshop she might ever have to participate in—and she has some good news.

“When you move?” another resident asks.

“The 1st,” Sasha said.

“What?! You go girl!” the resident responds.

“I ain’t going to have no furniture. I’m going to start from scratch,” Sasha said. “But I’m happy because it’s my home.”

However, she says after a year of communal living, she’s afraid of living by herself. Sasha also is disappointed she didn’t get her home before Christmas.

“We can’t have a Christmas tree,” she said. “I grew up with a Christmas tree so they should grow up with a Christmas tree.”

But thinking of her future gives her hope. Sasha said she wants to work hard to get a second job and maintain her home. Most importantly, the kids will have a new start, she said.

“That’s my Christmas gift, moving,” Sasha said. “The kids are happy. They can eat at a normal dinner time. They can have more freedom. They can play—they can be kids.”

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

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.