by Terry Rogers
At a recent council workshop, Martha Gery with the Milford Advocacy for the Homeless and Melody Barger, University of Delaware fellow with the city, presented information on what is being done for the homeless population in Milford as well as ideas that could help move more homeless into homes.
“We’re a grassroots organization that has been formed in Milford for officially just over a year, we were formed last January,” Gery said. “And we’ve been doing things with homeless that are in the area. Our goal is for two things, one, to serve as an advocate, meaning whatever services are out there, pull them all together, have them work together, not create something new if something’s already out there, but fill the gaps for things that are currently not filled. We have about 550 people in the community that are working with us in different capacities. And our goal, again is to create an atmosphere where we’re advocates for the homeless, and we would love for there not to be any homeless.’
One of the goals for the organization is to not only create solutions to homelessness but to also work with other communities to be sure they, too, are providing assistance. In other cities, the homeless population grew when solutions were created.
“We really want to just serve the community of the homeless people and make sure that we give them a comfort level. We don’t want them to become dependent on us. But we do want them to live in some sort of a human comfort,” Gery said. “And so that’s what we work towards You’ll see the passion, service, humanity and impact. We’re really trying to do everything that we do in a way that treats them as a common citizen, someone that’s valued, and someone that gets services just like any other citizen.”
Gery began working with the homeless in Milford after taking a job with Sisco Technologies, a company that allows employees to take time away from their duties to volunteer through a program “Time to Give.” She decided to take on homelessness but struggled to find them in Milford. She finally spoke to someone who told her to reach out to Brandywine Counseling, leading to a partnership between Milford Advocacy for the Homeless and the counseling center, providing meals to the homeless, serving as many as 900 meals in January alone.
“We became a nonprofit and started supplying small tents to men, two person tents with a sleeping bag and a backpack and clothing because a lot of times they come to us with just whatever’s on their back,” Gery said. “So we started doing that. In July, we started giving them bikes because we felt if we gave them transportation, two things would happen. It gives them an opportunity to get a job and it also helps that they’re not corralling in one single place, which I know the community is not welcoming. In November, we got a large donation and we were able to give them all new tents and new sleeping bags and clothes and food. February of this year, we started with larger tents because they were only on the short term. If you think about it, you can’t even stand up and then you kind of sit in them. And they’re in them all day long when it’s bad weather or in the winter. So, we started giving them the larger tents like about 10 foot high. So, we are now at the place where they have food security everyday through us and also at least some sort of covering.”
Gery pointed out that homeless people were just like everyone else, wanting to the movies, enjoy events and not simply sit around thinking about the circumstances that put them in the position they were in. She explained that her organization was putting together a plan for a 24/7 shelter as there was currently not one in Milford. They are also seeking funding for a van that would allow them to transport people to Code Purple shelters, to counseling, to work or any other location that might help them move toward having a home again.
“We’re also working on a business plan for a warming room. There’s this gap, where do they go when it’s 30 degrees, 28 degrees or like one night this year, 16 degrees outside. They don’t have any place to go. So we’re trying to fill that gap and keep them warm during that time,” Gery said. “So having a warming or cooling room. That would be just like if you think about it because a big community room where they could come watch TV, play games until we can transport them over to a shelter. It would be nice to be able to have some kind of storage, a kitchen, showers, a bathroom. It’s one of the other things that happens is they don’t have a place.”
Gery asked council to strongly consider placing public bathrooms downtown, not only for citizen use but so the homeless have a place where they can use the bathroom and get cleaned up.
“They don’t have a place to go the bathroom,” Gery said. “Another issue we deal with is that people talk about how they should just go get a job asking why homeless people are pan handling? There’s a lot of questions there. A lot of these people have lost their documentation and we know to have a legitimate job, you need a W9 filled out right? So, you need to have some kind of ID, a photo ID and you usually need a Social Security card. Well, to get a Social Security card, you need an ID to get an ID you need an address. They have neither of those. So, what we’re trying to do is we’re trying really go out and work with the people right where they are. Find out who needs that documentation. Brandywine has partnered with Catholic Charities, I believe, it is to get the money for them. And then Brandywine will take them up to Dover to get their ID or their Social Security card. And then we’re starting to partner with people in the community who have jobs available, helping them in getting back into society.”
One of the biggest issues in Milford is the lack of affordable housing. Gery pointed out that an apartment in Milford rents for between $1,000 and $1,200 per month, an amount that many people cannot afford. She said Milford Advocacy for the Homeless was trying to match people up so that three or four people could share one apartment, dropping the rent down to $500 per person.
“What we’re talking about are basic needs. We’re talking about people being able to have clothing. We are always in need of jeans, we’re always in need of sneakers, a pair of jeans is $15 and we have 30 people that we are serving constantly. You think about it 30 times $15 and that is just one pair. How many of us have four or five pair of jeans right? Once a week because you don’t want to do laundry,” Gery said. “So we don’t want them to have to wear the same clothing when they go to jobs.”
The services offered by Gery’s group do not end once a homeless person gets a job. Before getting a job, they are provided food and a place to wash their clothes, get a shower, all at no cost. However, once they have a job, they are expected to pay for those services. This can lead someone to fall back into the habits that may have led them to homelessness in the first place.
“Our idea is to help them in some of these programs to help them,” Gery said. “The second Friday of May, we are doing a presentation at the public library in Milford to educate the community about homelessness, what it is, how they can help and get some awareness of really why they’re panhandling or why they don’t get jobs, a lot of the questions that people ask, and then the week after that, we’ve partnered with the library again as we have created a coalition of different businesses, both in this community and adjoining communities, to try to make sure we have services for these people. We want to let them know we do not want to enable you, but we want to support you. And so that’s what we’re looking to do. And so we’re looking now to get grants and we have applied for the city grant for $50,000.”
Councilman Andy Fulton asked what the organization was doing as far as providing medical assistance when they were out in the areas where homeless congregate to which Gery replied that for their safety and security, her organization does their best to encourage them not to be violent and also encourage them to live in community instead of by themselves since being alone is not safe. They are also looking for a doctor who would go to the homeless and help them with medications, although she has personally had to take people to the hospital due to infections and other illnesses. Councilman Fulton asked whether Gery had ever needed to call the police over something that happened at a homeless encampment.
“We have not experienced any criminal behavior. What I have talked to them about is when I come back there that I’m on their side and I’m working with them, if they are doing something that is harmful, that they really should not show it to me,” Gery said. “Are some of them high when I go back there? Absolutely. But when I go to work, some people are, if I go to the store, some people are high so I can’t really do anything about that. But they do call the police if there’s violence. And the police will attest to that, plus in the last week I’ve gone out with Captain Huey and his team twice to local encampments. I worked as an advocate and I’m the conduit to share with the homeless that the police are here to help you. They need you to move out of this location. You cannot be here and so I think we’re getting good relationships to keep them secure and to keep them well.”
Gery also explained that the Milford Police Department Behavioral Unit had provided assistance at local encampments.
“You mentioned that it’s always better for them to be together as opposed to spread out and I tend to agree with that for safety reasons, but also what are we doing about the 24/7 shelter, to move this process forward because nobody doubts you. Our intention is to help the homeless as much as possible. But when we continue to enable them and yes, we want to push them into better lives, become people working and doing all the things that we all have to do,” Councilman Todd Culotta said. “What can we do to help with that because we have had complaints about police issues out there. We have had complaints from neighbors that they will walk into their yards to get someplace and ask a question. Should we help the homeless? That’s an easy answer, of course. But if they’re in my own backyard, and we say we help them, how do we work around that? On top of that, where we all know that the largest encampment is right now, I get complaints from business owners about the panhandling on the corner where McDonald’s is and the issues they’re causing, some safety problems but also harassment problems. I would like to see a hand up not a handout.”
Gery agreed with Councilman Culotta, stating that she had a family member who was homeless for over 15 years and it took her time to realize the family member needed to want assistance. That it could be difficult to force someone to do the right things which was why her organization focused on keeping them warm, safe and fed in the short term but had bigger goals in the long term. Councilman Culotta asked if council were to create a compound that could be used as transitional housing for the homeless, such as shipping container or tiny homes, whether that would be beneficial.
“I’ll tell you some of the ideas we had and maybe that’ll help. So one of the ideas we had and I started having conversations with Bryan Shupe and with Sarah, to find a location, a piece of land that we would be able to put them on, if there’s already a building there, great if there’s, whatever we need to do, but find a location that will be acceptable to the community, because we all know that nobody wants this in their backyard,” Gery said. “I mean, that’s just the way it is. And the people that we serve also know that that’s the case but getting it to where there’s a piece of property where they can still get what they need for services they need so it’s not too far out would be very helpful.”
One of the projects Gery mentioned was in Redding, Pennsylvania, a 225-bed facility used for homeless transitions. The bed comes with a signed agreement stating the rules that must be followed or they will be removed from the facility. She felt that if Milford had similar resources, that would actually be the best place to start. Gery stated that last year they served meals to around 30 people on a daily basis but they were already up to 50 this year. These are people living in tents, some in their cars and about ten of them are regularly serviced.
“We have transitional people, which are the people who might be living on someone’s couches. Family members have taken them in and so they’re in and out of homelessness temporarily, but then something they do makes somebody upset and suddenly, they don’t have a place to stay,” Gery said. “Or it’s winter and they are told “you can stay all winter but now I’m fed up with you. You’re out on the street.” We know that, but we also know that there is a larger number and we’d like to be able to help people that are on the brink of homelessness. The people who have been renting and the people that they’ve been renting off sold the home and now they don’t have a contract for lower rent or the new owner won’t accept coupons, whatever the reason might be. All of a sudden, you have it where the they don’t have a place to go because they simply can’t find anything. We have just a handful of people right now that have jobs, and they can afford about $600 and they cannot find a place.”
There are very few children in the local encampments although there are a few, according to Gery. Most of the children end up living with family, friends or in foster care. Gery stated that there are about 150 children in Milford School District who are considered homeless. Councilman Jason James asked if the group had been successful in transitioning anyone out of homelessness.
“Just this week, we had a couple this week that went from living in a tent for years. They were able to get an apartment for under $100 I think was $80 a week,” Gery said. “And so they just moved in so we will help them. When anybody gets a place, we helped them. Last month we had a gentleman who lived in his car, and he now has a place so we find that the quicker that we can help them and get them out of that mindset of homelessness the better.”
Once Gery finished her presentation, Barger provided council with details on national programs that could be adapted in Milford. One program was Housing First, which uses the idea that housing should be provided given later on once the person has proven that they are prepared, something that has a 75 to 91 percent success rate. The state of Washington has a program known as Service Unification that allowed them to consolidate funding to better serve the homeless population, similar to what Milford Advocacy for the Homeless was doing currently.
“Another model that we find on the national level is Permanent Supportive Housing. This is a combination of housing and supportive measures. And a lot of these models are kind of similar, but they have kind of different things that are emphasized,” Barger explained. “This one emphasizes supportive services over housing as opposed to housing first which emphasizes housing There’s a program called Community First Manhattan that’s been done in New York. And it’s a focus on supportive services, and really doing that grassroots thing, like Martha is doing, where you form relationships with people before you try and fit them into a mold and make them into the model citizen that you might assume, would come out of these programs. It’s really trying to meet people where they are and focused on that. And it’s an on the street program.”
Rapid Rehousing uses three core principles to kind of create a model that focuses on helping homeless people to be their best self. The program focuses on housing identification, rent and moving assistance, people to carry your boxes, somebody to pay for the U-haul, and it focuses on case management. The program also has somebody to check in with those using it to make sure they getting everything they need, and make sure that they have the supportive services to be able to stay housed. It’s a system for people, it gets them into housing quickly and then helps them maintain their housing situation.
“People are building shipping container apartment complexes and his is a fun one,” Barger said. “Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and Washington DC used shipping containers to provide low cost housing and they’re low cost because they’re pre-made. So ,you don’t have to build anything, and it shows it saves on shipping material. People are also houses being created using 3D printers. There are companies utilizing a small house printer, and it uses concrete as the building material. They’re being utilized most often in Africa, in Kenya in Kenya and Malawi, but they’re also being used in Austin, Texas.
In Delaware, there are several homeless projects currently underway. New Castle County has Hope Center, a former Sheraton Hotel that was repurposed as a homeless shelter. Georgetown is using pallet shelters to create a homeless compound with each pallet home costing between $5,000 and $8,000 to build. Salisbury has a similar compound as does Tallahassee and many areas in California. Some of the compounds have communal showers and bathrooms in the center while others also offered communal kitchen facilities.
“In some of the highest urban areas with homeless populations, like New York City, Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, Seattle, King County, Washington, San Diego, San Diego County, San Jose, Santa Clara, Santa Clara County, California,” Councilman Andy Fulton said. “And each one of those communities have purchased large buildings and put people into them just like the building up north. What they saw was a growth in the homeless population. What are your thoughts about that on how to prevent that from happening in this area, by just supplying all these items, how are we going to avoid growing the homeless population instead of helping the people back into society? Are we just building an out-of-society society within us?”
Gery and Barger stated that they did not have answers for those issues and that it was one of the things that made homelessness such a difficult issue.
“That’s kind of what I was getting at when I was asking you, say we have an average of 30 homeless people, shelters, or housing like these pallet houses. Okay. That makes sense. Great, and someone who is homeless in Milford could think “I am gonna go down there with a tent and camp until one becomes available for me or whatever it might be,” Councilman Culotta said. “I work in construction. i’ve been around a lot of people, they’re good workers, are very reliable or always show up. Always consistent. So you can say, Okay, I’m gonna put you in this house. But how do we then not violate the human rights by saying he’s clean, are you doing the right things blah, blah, blah, and they start saying “that’s not fair.” But it’s got to be that way, if you want to live in these houses that are subsidized. And this is for people that have $10 to $15 an hour dollar jobs, that work in Big Lots and places like that. Working or capable people, yet cannot afford $1000 to $1,200 a month in rent. And Milford, we got to watch this. too, because we’re talking about doing things to the building code that is gonna increase cost of housing, whether it’s sprinklers or minimum lot sizes, or minimum square footage sizes, things like that. So that’s where we have to figure out where do we place this because it’s a great idea. We decide “let’s put it right there.” And then everybody who lives close to there says no way. I mean people don’t even want new developments next to them, much less. subsidized housing for so and so. That is a tough one.”
Gery explained that many homeless people were squatting on land they know they should not be on, but if land was allocated for a tiny home project, there would be more control. Residents would be required to sign agreements and abide by the rules. This was common in all types of subsidized housing. The current situation does not allow any type of control regarding what happens in the encampment where an established location could be controlled.
“Because you can say there are agreements that they have to sign to be in those and there’ll be a time limit, you have a two year limit, here’s the program we expect you to go through, and that’s your contract with us, it was for two years, then we have to have this available for someone else who needs to get out of that situation,” Gery said. “It grows because we have no control. We can’t go clear everybody out. But we can’t say there’s only this many housing in that area, or that you have to clean up your area or you can only go to the bathroom over here. Right now, they just kind of do what they want. When you have a community and you’ve designated it as a community, then, just like you have your HOAs and things like that around here, you know you have to abide by if you want to live there, you abide by those rules. It’s not that they have to be stringent rules, but they do have to be guidelines. And we don’t want people flocking here.”
Another factor Gery pointed to was that Code Purple had rules, such as times they could enter the shelter. The state put people up at the Hampton Inn for a few months and some who did not follow those rules were asked to leave, so following certain rules to receive services was not a foreign concept to the homeless.
“This is my last comment on that. And I concur. Once again, I concur. But you know, there’s an old adage that I read that makes perfect sense,” Councilman Jason James said. “Do the good that’s within your means because you’re not going to solve your problems by doing nothing. But don’t do nothing because you can’t solve every problem.”
City Manager Mark Whitfield told council staff would dig deeper into some of the options available to manage the homeless population in Milford and present more details at a future meeting.
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