Delaware shelter operators react to death of four people living in the woods

The Wilmington News Journal reports the deaths may have been caused by carbon monoxide poisoning from a propane tank used for heat.

Four people experiencing homelessness were found dead inside of a tent in a Delaware woods on Monday. (NBC10)

Four people experiencing homelessness were found dead inside of a tent in a Delaware woods on Monday. (NBC10)

Four people were found dead Monday afternoon inside a tent they were using for shelter in a patch of woods next to a Delaware roadway. State police haven’t identified the cause of their deaths, but say they don’t suspect foul play.

The Wilmington News Journal reports the deaths may have been caused by carbon monoxide poisoning from a propane tank used for heat.

“It just breaks your heart that anyone would die who is homeless,” Rev. Tom Laymon said.

Laymon leads the Sunday Breakfast Mission which provides meals and shelter for people experiencing homelessness in Wilmington.

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He said everyone can play a role in helping prevent another incident like this by letting police know when people are living outside.

“Look for those who are out on the street, under the bridges and in the tents, and call the police. Let’s not have another person die this year,” he said. “Telling the police about someone out in a field is not tattling on that person. What that’s doing is helping that person find help.”

In January, volunteers fanned out across the state to count the number of people experiencing homelessness in Delaware. The results of that survey will be released later this year, but Laymon said his mission has seen a sharp increase in the number of people who need shelter. The group has 72 beds for men and in years past, they’d see about 30 men filling their overflow space. This year, Laymon said the mission has been averaging 120 to 130 men, plus growing numbers of women and children.

Last year’s survey counted 921 people living on the streets in Delaware, with 61% in New Castle County. That count also found 95 people living without shelter in a vehicle, on the streets or in the woods.

“Generally, there’s not enough housing for those who present as homeless,” said Renee Beaman, director of the Division of State Service Centers. “We just don’t have the capacity statewide, and that is very frustrating.”

She said the state helped provide temporary housing for close to 3,000 individuals and families last year. About one third of those people are in a more stable housing situation today.

Laymon points to the opioid epidemic as a cause of the increase in clients coming to the mission.

“These are drugs which oftentimes don’t drive people into treatment and rehabilitation programs like ours,” Laymon said. “They instead drive them to just stay out there.”

The state gets $300,000 from the federal Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness program. The state kicks in another $100,000 to help those who have substance use or mental health issues and are experiencing homeless. Some of that money is used to reach out to people without homes and provide them with services. Every day, workers with the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, or DSAMH, visit places where people experiencing homelessness frequently gather, hoping to offer help.

DSAMH workers will also respond with police when an encampment has been discovered.

“We’ll go in and see if there’s anyone there we can engage and talk to,” said DSAMH’s Susan Holloway. “If there’s no one there, we’ll hang signs giving a number for them to call or letting them know that we’re going to return at a certain date and time.”

The rising cost of rent could also be to blame for the rise in homelessness, said Cheryl Christiansen. She’s the executive director of Family Promise of Northern New Castle County, a group that provides shelter to homeless families.

“It’s just prohibitive, especially for what we see for family income, if they’re working a low-wage job, to be able to afford the cost of rent,” Christiansen said.

Family Promise housed 170 families in 2019. While she hasn’t talked with colleagues at other shelters about this incident, there has been recent discussion about how to best spread the word about what help is available.

“We have, on a couple of levels, tried to get information out to a broader audience,” Christiansen said. “We try to put information out in libraries and a lot of different public places that people would frequent.”

While she’s not familiar with the four people who died in the tent Monday, she said it’s possible they were aware of the services available and chose not to get help.

“I would guess that given the fact that they’re visible, there might have been some contact with police,” she said. “They may have tried to reach out for services and chose not to use them.”

Laymon estimates about 25% of those who are homeless won’t go to a shelter.

The state offers help to those seeking shelter through its 2-1-1 helpline or at 15 state service centers operated by the Department of Health and Social Services. State workers can help people find a shelter that has space for the night or provide funding for temporary shelter at a hotel.

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