‘It makes you feel normal’: Delaware’s Pallet Village helps those experiencing homelessness

After some setbacks, the Pallet Village in Georgetown finally opens, housing nearly 50 people experiencing homelessness and other challenges.

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A walkway stretches into the distance, lined by rows of small white homes on either side.

Georgetown, Delaware’s first Pallet Village, with 40 64-square-foot cabins. The Springboard Collaborative, which operates the Pallet Village, recently received a $2.4 million grant. (Johnny Perez-Gonzalez/WHYY)

Delaware’s first pallet village is now home to a group of nearly 50 people experiencing homelessness. The group of tiny homes in Georgetown provides shelter as well as community support to help residents get back on their feet.

The 64-square-foot cabins now provide shelter for 46 residents, with air conditioning, heat, and electrical outlets included. They’re spaced about eight feet apart, the minimum amount allowed by the fire marshal. The area includes four common bathrooms, one of which is ADA accessible.

The village started as just an idea two years ago. The Springboard Collaborative along with First State Community Action Agency officially opened the cabins to residents last month.

“We are open, and people have had a chance to move in and get settled,” said Judsone Malone, Springboard’s executive director. After two weeks of occupancy, Malone said they’ve already seen a transformation among some residents. “We’re finding some really significant progress in terms of people who now want to get off their dependencies and go through a detox or they want to work on their goals,” he said.

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Springboard did outreach work in the community for six months to identify residents who could be helped. “We had our computers set up and we were interviewing them,” Malone said. “It was a way of gathering information… so we can better fill in the gaps where they need support.”

Future plans for the village also include a community center with specialists working with residents to address mental or physical health needs, addiction, job training, and other help.

So far, six or seven residents struggling with substance use have gone through a detoxification process, Malone said.

The program is supported by groups such as La Red, Beebe Hospital, Brandywine Bright View, and the Department of Health and Social Services.

“Beebe is coming about at least twice a month [with] a medical bus, so they can walk right up the street and get medical attention,” he said. “The Department of Health and Social Services or the Mental Health Service division have … done mental health screenings for almost the entire population.”

Residents are given a survey immediately after becoming eligible for the community, with 12 categories of goals to pick from, such as developing relationships with their family or obtaining jobs.

“They can pick any three they want, but one of them has to be housing, you know, because this is not a place to live forever. This is a place, an interim step to getting to permanent housing,” Malone said. Through this process, project managers will help them navigate through their journey and search for “their own individual housing plan.”

Several small white houses are arranged in rows.
Georgetown, Delaware’s first Pallet Village, with 40 64-square-foot cabins. (Johnny Perez-Gonzalez/WHYY)

‘It makes you feel normal’

While their efforts have been successful, there have been some setbacks.

“We’re dealing with some individuals with some real deep substance use challenges, and they really need extra support,” said Project Manager Trish Hill after one resident overdosed in the area the first week.

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“The one individual that overdosed is receiving care somewhere else, but the other person involved actually was temporarily exited from the program,” she added. That individual later came back to the village asking for support, which resulted in them getting long-term treatment. “That person is in a substance use treatment program in another state at this time,” Hill said.

That type of challenge is something organizers have anticipated and were prepared for.  “We trained all of our staff to make sure they were aware of what an overdose looks like,” Hill said, adding that staff were trained on how to use naloxone to stabilize a person experiencing an overdose.

For residents, having a place to stay, even temporarily, makes a big difference in their outlook.

“I’m 100% better, I see it myself. Like I wouldn’t care to put makeup on back there. I’m in the woods… what do I care,” said Jennifer McErlane, who has been drug-free for a month now. She said she was drinking more and depressed after nearly two years living in an encampment in Georgetown. She calls the village “a godsend.” She’s now hoping to get a part-time job as a housekeeper with Beebe. “And I’m going to get my G.E.D,” she said.

A woman holds up her cat outside of the white cabin she lives in at the Delaware Pallet Village.
Jennifer McErlane, who experienced homelessness for two years with her cat “Little Man,” now finds herself living in the cabins. (Johnny Perez-Gonzalez/WHYY)

“You’re not in a tent anymore. You have a roof over your head. You have heat, we get meals, and they feed us very well,” McErlane said. “We’re safe here. Like we have security guards. I feel great, I mean it boosts your energy… your morale, it makes you feel normal.”

With 40 cabins now occupied, the village’s next step is to build a 2,000-square-foot community center with a recreational room, purpose room, staff offices, a warming kitchen, and a garden. The mayor of Georgetown has also pledged to create a garden at the site as well.

Organizers also hope to possibly expand to other locations. Leaders in Milford about 16 miles to the north have reached out to Springboard, hoping to create their own Pallet Village.

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