Just before the Christmas holiday, Milford Advocacy for the Homeless and the City of Milford learned that property on East Masten Circle was sold to a developer who planned to clear the land in early January. The land was the location of Tent City, a small homeless encampment with approximately 40 people living in tents on the property. Through the efforts of Councilman and Vice-Mayor Jason James, the developer agreed to delay clearing of the property for one week to give MAH and other entities time to address those who would be displaced. Over Christmas weekend, when temperatures dropped well below freezing, the city opened their Public Works building as a warming center while others worked to find a solution for those who were being forced from Tent City.
“We want to thank the mayor and vice mayor for their continued partnership and support to address those members of our community who are displaced. We also want to thank the officers who monitored and assured safety to everyone. The warming center provided shelter for 17 displaced people that weekend during the dangerously low temperatures. Let me tell you a few of the lives that you affected by opening up the warming center,” Martha Gery, founder and CEO of MAH said. “We had people who were living in unheated tents, in abandoned buildings who were deprived of heat and food. Two of them had hypothermia upon entering the center, one we treated there with heat. The other had severe hypothermia and was sent to the hospital. After a couple of hours of treatment, she returned and remained the rest of the weekend. If the warming center had not been open, they would have spent the weekend in temperatures going to minus nine degrees with a windchill factor. The use of the Public Works building as a warming center literally saved the lives of our Milford citizens that weekend.”
Gery plans to present proposals to the city to continue the emergency warming center at the Public Works building when prolonged freezing temperatures are expected. She is also asking the city to include in their annual budget funds for a warming center as well as additional funds to support those displaced in the community. Gery explained that the need for low-income housing in Milford is much higher than the options available which results in more people living on the street. She also noted that there is not much forestation left in the city and what is available is privately owned which means many of the homeless have nowhere to go. Although MAH is attempting everything possible to address the situation, much is left to be done.
“For 20 years, I shouted at the top of my lungs when no one in Milford wanted to recognize Milford’s homeless,” Councilwoman Katrina Wilson said. “When no one wanted to help the homeless. I saw it coming. All of us did. It was just hidden a little bit better. But now that it’s here and Milford is taking major steps, because that was a major step for the city of Milford, I just want to say that I definitely want to be part of this. I want to get on this ride so we can see this thing through. Maybe, in the next couple of years, we’ll have made some progress and have something more permanent in the city of Milford, especially for the size that we are compared to towns throughout Delaware.”
Mayor Archie Campbell stated that he learned more about the plight of the homeless at a meeting held just after Christmas where some of the residents of Tent City described how they ended up homeless. Mayor Campbell explained that anyone in the room could be in that situation at the drop of a hat. However, he also explained that he had spoken to Mayor Bill West in Georgetown where a pallet city was currently planned who wanted to make it clear that the pallet city did not mean Georgetown was the location to send every municipalities homeless. Mayor West told Mayor Campbell that that pallet city could only take around 40 people and that there were strict rules and restrictions.
“The very fact that one woman came into Public Works who was frozen is concerning,” Mayor Campbell said. “When she came in, we had to ship her out to the emergency room, call an ambulance. We had to put that on us. In Newark or Wilmington, someone froze to death that week that we had the public works building open. The people there were so thankful. We had Code Purple at two churches, the women at the Nazarene and men at Avenue. Because we opened our center, they had less people. In fact, one day at Avenue Church, not one person showed up. They all came to the center which was a major plus for us.”
Gery stated that the issue many faced is that not all of the homeless qualify for other programs as many are employed or receive benefits of some type. She also explained that some of those in Tent City have mental issues that will make it difficult to get them to move. Although many had been placed in programs, most of those programs were short-term which means some may return to homelessness once the program ends. Councilman James explained that Brandywine was assisting MAH with trying to get people placed, doing assessments and working with those who struggled to understand what was happening.
“We are not going to solve the homeless problem this week, that’s impossible and it’s not going to happen,” Councilman James said. “What I want this council to think about, because this is what I am hearing from constituents, particularly the Fourth Ward because that is where all the homeless population is. It affects the whole city, but particularly in the Fourth Ward, individual residents and the business community. I think the city has a dual role here to do as much as possible, to facilitate as much connection with services as possible, whether it’s through Milford Advocacy for the Homeless, with Martha. We have David’s House; we have several organizations that are involved. But I’ve heard loud and clear that doing nothing is not an option. Not that it was an option before, but it’s definitely not now. So, this council needs to think about how do we help, what does participation from the city mean?”
Councilman James continued that council should not make decisions lightly as they are stewards with a responsibility to taxpayers as well. He also pointed out that there was not a readily available plot of land to relocate this small group of people. This meant that council needed to look at both short- and long-term options.
“I have learned that not everyone is homeless because they choose to be,” Councilman James said. “Some are just a victim of circumstance so anything we do as a municipality will be helpful. I’ve examined a lot of municipalities on how they approached the homeless and it seems to me there has always been a partnership with a non-profit group, for-profit enterprises and the municipality to address it. None of these have been able to do it alone. It has taken all three of those to do it together and I don’t think it would be any different for Milford.”
Councilman Todd Culotta agreed with Councilman James, stating that this was a bigger discussion that could not be resolved in one council meeting.
“I think it is a multi-pronged approach like you said, private industry, public assistance, and also city government. I do think there are a lot of programs in place. And I would like maybe for us to have another workshop on what some of those programs are and how they work and to make us aware of them,” Councilman Culotta said. “I don’t necessarily think we need to reinvent the wheel here. But I do think that there’s gaps in the system that we could talk about that would work. My personal belief is that the system is there to help people who can’t help themselves, not those that don’t want to, and I think that’s where the impatience or the perception of homelessness is, that they choose to be homeless and that is not always the case. No two homeless people have the same circumstances of why they got there. So, it’s not fair to lump them all together.”
One of Councilman Culotta’s concerns, however, was enabling those who could actually help themselves, yet chose not to when they did not have to do so.
“Sometimes, I think maybe we, in the interest of helping, we begin to enable and that’s where I think that the short term programs, whether it’s a year or six months, whatever that might be, are good because we help people get on their feet and be supported,” Councilman Culotta said. “That is not always the case, but there’s ways to do that. I do think that exercise and having the heating center over the holidays was a good one and that it serves a purpose related to Public Works, not just offices. So that maybe we could talk about that as a city. What we could put up for circumstances like that when the temperature gets too cold, that that they have somewhere to go. When that happens, not necessarily a set of things all the time. 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, but when it’s absolutely needed, I think maybe, is there something we could take a look at? But again, there’s a lot more discussion on this and I would imagine everybody in this room and listening has a heart to help the homeless. It’s just how do we go about doing it without enabling? That’s my concern.”
According to Councilman James, the model in Georgetown was one that Milford should look to for guidance. The town of Georgetown purchased pallet homes with ARPA funding, but they were not administering the project.
“There’s an organization called Springboard LLC that’s administering and managing the pallet city per se, along with First State Community Action that has the wraparound services for case management, feeding and so forth and so on. So, it is a nonprofit that’s actually administering the functions and the case management and then taking the people through the programs,” Councilman James said. “There’s checkpoints along the way. They’re assessed 45 days, 90 days to see if there’s progress. If they’re still clean, or did they find a job, can they pay rent and then introduce them back into society on a path to independent living. That’s the idea. I talked directly to them, that’s how I know. So, when we’re thinking about these kind of things, it’s not that Milford would be running a program, because that’s not the model that’s taking place. The model that is taking place is that Georgetown participated, particularly by buying the 40 pallet houses with ARPA money. First State Community Action donated the land and Springboard LLC is doing the administration so that’s the model.”
Councilman Culotta agreed that for a project like the pallet homes to work, it was necessary to have public-private partnerships.
“And you almost need that because, you got to remember, we could solve a problem and fund this group right here and address this problem. But chances are down the road, we have a new city manager, you’re down the road and have a new Mayor plus new council people and that has to be maintained. It has to be,” Councilman Culotta said. “A lot of times, whether it’s public housing or something like that it’s good in theory, but over time, poor management makes it more of a problem than it is a solution. My concern is when we get involved as a government entity, in the interest of helping, we make it worse and that’s why I like the public-private partnership mentality because in the private there’s accountability.”
Before ending the discussion, Mayor Campbell stated that the entire state was watching Georgetown to see how that project worked, noting that Milford would be able to watch it unfold from the beginning. Anyone who is interested in helping develop solutions for Milford’s homeless population can reach out to Gery at 302-643-2470 or visit the MAH website at www.milfordadvocacyforthehomeless.org.
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