Georgetown’s Jim Martin feeds the homeless, helps them find places to live and get clean if they need it and advocates for them before governments and anyone else who will listen.
All his friends on Facebook — and he’s got 5,000 of them; so many he maxed out and can’t accept any more — are accustomed to the man who operates the Shepherd’s Office in Georgetown using his social media to profile someone who needs help and asking for that help.
The appeals can include hotel vouchers, clothing, gasoline, car repairs, a bike to get to work, food and more. Usually, it’s to help them get a job or keep going to work.
And people respond: Dozens will offer help, cash, an old bike, even giving total strangers a ride to another city.
Martin is a man who knows the territory personally, because substance abuse helped him slide from a comfortable life to the streets himself.
He owned a home remodeling company and was an elected town commissioner in the Upper Moreland Township of Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. That changed in 2008.
“I was 49 years old, and I just sort of … fell out of my life,” he said.
He lost his job, his wife, his home and his car all within a few months.
Martin found his way out of addiction and homelessness, determined to start paying back the help he got.
First, he helped people in Georgetown who were not addicts but were homeless set up group homes.
Martin has organized and signed leases for 26 group homes for people without homes since 2011, putting his own credit in the hands of other people, who have made a vocal contract with him to collectively pay the rent.
“When I was organizing houses, I would probably have to talk to 100 people just to find 10 good people to move in,” Martin said, “Then they would become part of the team. I would teach them how to run the house. I couldn’t do that by myself. There’s too many moving parts. You gotta have a team.”
Then in 2016, he started the Shepherd’s Office, a nonprofit hospitality site that serves meals to anyone who is homeless, hungry or lonely free of charge, among other programs.
Martin is unabashedly Christian in his messages, appealing people to follow the word of Christ and help their earthly brothers and sisters. The Shepherd’s Office also offers Bible studies and communion. He even rescued Georgetown’s manger scene when the town decided not to use it. He refurbished it and displays it during the holidays on the lawn of the Shepherd’s Office.
“I describe Jim as the hands and feet of Jesus,” said Melody Westphal of Georgetown. She tries to connect people with the homeless and their needs when Jim showcases them on his Facebook page.
“He’s out there doing the real work to help these people and communicate their needs to others,” she said.
And help they do. It’s not unusual for a local business or group to drop by with food for the center or a local business to agree to repair a car or help in another way. Many donations are small and focused, but mount up.
In the last few days, Calypso Caterers in Georgetown provided dinner one night. Paul Cullen of Paul’s Kitchen and Cullen-ary Co. dropped off dinners and donations. Carrie B. Hellens dropped off 10 big waterproof tubs filled with necessary toiletries and more. Jo Ann and Ken Evans dropped off healthy snacks. Delaware Palliative Care prepared and served Tuesday’s dinner. Max Rial, a Scout with Boy Scout Troop 281, dropped off camping gear the had been collecting for the homeless.
For Thanksgiving, The Shepherd’s Office was given 500 Thanksgiving dinners by a local church and 80 boxes of food from the Delaware Food Bank.
“It does get a little busier I suppose, but for me it’s just another week,” Martin said then. “But on Thanksgiving, yeah, there’s a little more energy around.”
Martin also isn’t afraid to talk about his own anxieties or use a little humor.
“It is Christmas Week,” he posted this week. “If you are stressed just think desserts! It is ‘stressed’ spelled backwards. Cool. I am OK now.”
Many of his posts detail the heart-rending vagaries of life for those without money or homes and often read like plots in a novel or television drama. Sometimes, he has to post an update saying someone he’s written and been supporting didn’t make it.
On Sunday he wrote about a 57-year-old man who had just been released from prison and was stranded in Georgetown. The man walked four miles carrying two heavy bags to reach the Shepherd’s Center. They fed him and gave him water. The man asked for a ride to Dover so he could catch a bus to Wilmington.
Martin did a Facebook Live detailing his request but before anyone could reach out, the man had a medical emergency. A diabetic, his blood sugar levels caused him to faint. An ambulance took him to the hospital. Martin promised his Facebook friends updates.
“Please pay for inmates (‘returning citizens’) who are released from prison with little to no resources,” he asked his social media friends.
There are happy stories, too.
This week he detailed how a woman named Julia asked how her church could help. He told the church members there is a shelter only for men in Georgetown and the town desperately needed an overnight “warming station” for women, infants and children. The church members went out and bought cots and other necessary items and hosted an overnight event.
“Incredible,” Martin wrote on Facebook. “God is always at work to care for His Broken-Hearted Children. But God needs us to be His Hands and Feet and Julia really stepped up! And they all speak Spanish … with very few English speaking … but we got it done!”
Martin has been working in Sussex County since 2009, and increasingly is adamantly advocating for the homeless and recovering addicts to have places to live. One of his favorite solutions is tiny home communities.
“There are thousands in Sussex County who are living in their cars right now,” he says. “The working poor can’t buy both a house and a car, so they buy a car. I think we have over 10,000 who are roofless or homeless in Sussex County right now.
“If you make $21 an hour or less and you are approaching the housing market for the first time as a buyer or a renter, you learn quickly that you will get to live in your car. And if you make less than $12 an hour, you can’t afford a car or a home, so you sleep wherever you can find a spot.”
He’s created a complicated color-coded chart that hierarchy of the homeless, complete with a list of the sources for the numbers. At the top are the Kardashians, or highest income families, who are coded purple, and have a nice home in a nice area with no financial troubles.
They are followed by The Happy Homeowners, who live in a place they like, and Frustrated Homeowner, who have a house, but are burdened by the cost or want to move to a nicer area, but can’t afford it. Those two are coded blue.
In green are the American Dreamers, who are renters struggling to achieve the dream of home ownership, and the Paycheck to Paycheck renters who may be skipping on food, clothing or other necessities to stay in their home.
The Waitlisted are coded yellow, and are in transition housing. Coded orange are the Job-Seeking Homeless who need to work, for the pay and also emotional health.
The Chronic Homeless are coded red, because their basic needs are unmet.
He believes 45,856 Sussex Countians — one-fifth of the population — are feeling the Sussex County housing crisis right now: 1,146 are The Chronic Homeless, 3,439 are the Job Seeking Homeless, 11,464 are the Wait-listed Homeless and 29,807 are precariously housed being “one-bad argument away” from being homeless.
He is so vocal about the plight of the homeless and the need for more affordable housing that he says he’s doesn’t have a great relationship with the local community and city government.
The mayor of Georgetown is not fond of him, Martin said. That mayor, Bill West, did not respond to requests to comment about Martin.
Martin believes that many people are still reeling from the 2008 recession and financial collapse of the housing market, which created an influx of newly houseless people. There’s no way yet of known how COVID-19 will affect people.
If they end up on his patch, he will try to help them like he did John Fitzgerald, 58. They had known each other before before addictions paved their paths to homelessness.
Fitzgerald, who served in the U.S. Navy from 1980-1986, was homeless for a time while he was battling his own alcoholism. When he and Martin met again at the Shepherd’s Center, Martin asked him to help out.
“In the beginning,” Fitzgerald said, “he wanted to feel me out, to see if I was serious about getting off the streets.”
After he proved himself, Martin helped Fitzgerald to find a place to stay and an AA meeting to go to. Fitzgerald got clean and got a job.
Fitzgerald now helps Martin hand out meals at the Shepherd’s Office, as much as he can. He lives in an apartment by himself, and hopes to soon move into a different apartment, or even a house.
At the Shepherd’s Office, Martin sees a lot of repeat customers.
“Each day we probably give out about 150 meals,” he said. “I would say we serve about 250 unique individuals each week.”
The solution to the problems of homelessness, Martin believes, is for society’s outlook on homeless people to change. That would lead to more homeless shelters and tiny home projects being created, he said.
If people would just take the time out of their lives to talk to homeless people, it would help the average person understand them better, Martin maintains.
Estevan Garcia, 31, was homeless and addicted to opiates for years before he met Martin.
“He took the time to have a conversation with me,” Garcia said. “When you’re homeless, people never do that.”
Garcia said that Jim gave him an opportunity to help other people, and that motivated him to get more involved with homeless hospitability work.
Now Garcia is working three jobs at nonprofits that are all connected with helping the homeless and living with his girlfriend’s family.
He hopes to move out soon.
The Shepard’s Office is funded through small donations, which often come from people who volunteer and people who have previously needed to go to the Shepard’s Office for warm meals.
It’s staffed by a rotating cast of nearly 200 individuals, most of them volunteers.
“What happens is you give them a free meal and then over time you develop a friendship and a rapport with the person,” Martin said. “Then you try to figure out other ways to help them outside of food.”