Before the pandemic, people living on the streets would find shelter from the elements during the daytime at a variety of locations, including coffee shops and libraries, said Kim Eppehimer, executive director of Friendship House, a support center for people experiencing homelessness in Wilmington and the surrounding area.
“When the state declared a state of emergency in March, these things closed, and with COVID continuing to spread, they’ve remained closed to those who are living on the streets,” she said. “They lost their survival network.”
In a normal year, Friendship House transforms into an oasis of warmth for people living without a home during the winter months.
When temperatures dip to 20 degrees or if the wind chill hits 15 degrees Fahrenheit, the city will declare a Code Purple Alert, activating the shelter’s overnight accommodations for those needing a place to stay. Volunteers prepare soup and sandwiches and offer hospitality to those coming in from the cold.
During the pandemic, having a large number gather in one place poses a significant risk of spreading the virus. That’s affected the way Code Purple is done, Eppehimer said. Having volunteers interact with those seeking shelter and serving them food is also problematic.
So instead, the Code Purple program will be run out of a former Sheraton Hotel recently purchased by New Castle County. “It’s now called the New Castle County Center of Hope, or Hope Center,” she said. “This will replace all of our winter programming this year, including Code Purple and our weekend winter sanctuary. So therefore, instead of offering specific nights of shelter, we will now have shelter available throughout the winter.”
Typically, the emergency homeless shelter would provide a place for folks to stay on limited nights, and they’d be forced to find some other place to stay warm during the day. But the Hope Center will be open around the clock throughout the winter.
The original plan was to have those needing shelter sleep on cots in the hotel’s ballroom, but that’s changed as the state has increased limits on how many people should be in close proximity in indoor locations. They currently have capacity for about 400 people.
“Our first line of defense against community spread is allowing people to isolate in a hotel room as much as possible,” Eppehimer said. “Therefore, from the start, we will be placing people into rooms and only if the rooms reach capacity will we then move to a congregate shelter model still on site.”
Guests will receive a typical hotel experience with fresh towels, linens, hygiene products, snacks and a weekly cleaning of their rooms. They’ll also get meals, which will be eaten individually in their rooms to prevent any gathering that could spread the virus.
New Castle County has provided funding through the CARES Act to keep the hotel’s staff employed to clean rooms and serve the guests.
Other agencies, including the state Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, will have staff stationed at the center to provide help to anyone who may need it. Staff from Faithful Friends Animal Society will also be on hand to help provide care for any pets that guests may bring with them.
While the hotel isn’t served by any public bus routes, a shuttle service will be set up to transport guests to bus stops nearby.
There’s no real end date on how long guests can stay at the center. Eppehimer is hopeful the longer-than-usual shelter stay could help more people find more stable housing.
“We’re hoping that many of those who come to us starting Dec. 15 will get to stay until they want to leave, or they have a permanent house situation to go to,” she said.
Friendship House Empowerment Centers in Wilmington will remain active to provide help through its job readiness programs, clothing referrals, money to pay for prescriptions and acquire birth certificates and state ID cards. More than 2,000 people use the center as their mailing address.
“This could be an amazing opportunity to help them find a way from here into something else. So I think we will be even more busy than ever this winter,” she said.
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