By Taylor Shunk
You don’t often hear of a mother with six kids having time to help others but Nikki Gonzalez is no ordinary mom. For the last 5 years, Gonzalez has been the executive director of Code Purple Sussex County which provides emergency nighttime shelters for the homeless. Gonzalez originally began volunteering with sex trafficking victims and ministering to women in strip clubs.
“Fortunately, there aren’t many strip clubs in Sussex County so, I didn’t go in that direction,” said Gonzalez. Then, after serving Thanksgiving dinner at the Ace Center, she realized how big the homeless population was in the area. “I started doing street outreach two nights a week and going into the tent cities,” said Gonzalez. “That eventually led to running Code Purple in Sussex.”
Code Purple Sussex County runs 8 shelters and is made up entirely by volunteers. In fact there are over 146 volunteers doing everything from intake, dinner, transportation, overnight stays, coordinating the shelters and more. “I’m very grateful for all the volunteers who help even in wintry weather,” said Gonzalez. “They’re very special to me.” Overnight volunteers are always in need. “Many times we have to transport guests from one shelter to another because we just don’t have the night volunteers,” said Gonzalez.
Gonzalez is on call 24 hours a day so, she stays pretty busy. “People don’t realize how much communication I do in a day,” said Gonzalez. “I talk to volunteers, agencies and even our guests but I love it!” Thankfully the shelters don’t cost a lot to run. “We do a ton of work with very little money,” said Gonzalez. The churches graciously offer their spaces although Gonzalez does try to make up for the difference in electric usage. “Some churches need the money,” said Gonzalez.
“We don’t want to be a burden on anyone.” They often receive clothing donations which are appreciated but not always needed. “The homeless can only carry so much in their back packs,” said Gonzalez. “Clothing tends to be disposable for them.” They do offer a clothing closet that everyone is welcome to use and basic items such as socks are always available. Some special items the guests could use are bus passes, ear buds and flashlights.
Last year Code Purple Sussex County served over 175 guests and many struggle with addiction and mental illness. “We really do serve the hardest of the hard cases,” said Gonzalez. “Most have burned bridges with family, friends, 30 day shelters and hotel stays.” Code Purple tends to be the last resort for many. “They literally have nowhere else to go besides a tent or their car,” said Gonzalez. Still, Code Purple isn’t for everyone because it’s not a medical facility. “This year I had to refuse some people with mental and physical disabilities,” said Gonzalez. “Eventually the proper facilities will step up for them.”
Giving back is truly a family affair for Gonzalez. Her husband and kids all volunteer at the shelters. “One of the reasons I chose to homeschool my kids is so they could do ministry with me,” said Gonzalez. Some of the past guests even become like family. “There are so many misconceptions about who we serve,” said Gonzalez. “Once you get to know the people behind the mental illness or addiction, you find out that they’re just people.” Some people stay all winter, others just for one night but they seem to leave an impression on the volunteers. One night Gonzalez had to open a shelter alone because she didn’t have any volunteers. “One of my regular guests wouldn’t leave my side until I locked up the church,” said Gonzalez. “He even walked me to my car to make sure I was safe.”
Gonzalez truly believes that everyone matters and that it’s easy to make a difference in the lives of the homeless. “What changes society is one person walking beside another,” said Gonzalez. “We just need to encourage them.” For more information about volunteering or for anyone experiencing homelessness call 302-519-0024 or visit codepurplesussexcounty.com
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