In December, property located on East Masten’s Circle was sold to a developer who plans to build warehouse space. Unfortunately, the land has been the site of Tent City, a homeless encampment, for several years. The new owner plans to clear the land in early January, requiring the relocation of the homeless population who reside there, according to Martha Gery, CEO and founder of Milford Advocacy for the Homeless. Another public meeting will be held on January 5 at the Milford Senior Center from 7 to 9 PM.
“It is with a heavy heart that I need to share some disturbing news this morning,” Gery wrote on the MAH Facebook page on Tuesday. “Yesterday afternoon, we found out that the property where Tent City is located has been purchased and will begin deforesting and putting up fence on January 7th. This means on January 6th, 40 or more people who are citizens of Milford and already displaced will once again find themselves without shelter. I chatted with them yesterday afternoon to let them know what is going on. There were tears, sadness and despair on everyone’s faces.”
Once the news of the property sale and the need to relocate the more than 40 people living in Tent City, the community and City of Milford jumped into action. With temperatures dropping into single digits over Christmas weekend, even more pressure was added to find a safe place for those living in tents to go in order to protect them from the elements. Although there are Code Purple shelters set up when the temperatures drop, they are limited for space.
“Due to the efforts of Mayor Archie Campbell and other members of council, space has been opened at the City of Milford Public Works office over the Christmas weekend,” Sara Bluhm, Economic Development and Community Engagement Coordinator, said. “Those who need a place to go to stay warm are able to go to Public Works through Monday, December 26.”
In addition, Councilman Jason James spent several days reaching out to the State of Delaware and was very helpful in finding a solution, Gery said.
“Jason talked to them and convinced the owner to give us another week,” Gery said. “Now it is January 15 they plan to deforest, so they have to be off January 14, which is better. The owner said he was sorry, but he would incur all kinds of costs if he delayed any further. He’s allowed to do his thing; it is his property. But I figured it was better to ask because he is part of this community now. I don’t know if he is new to the community or whatever, but he’s now a property owner in this community and maybe he didn’t know there were squatters on his land, but there are.”
According to Gery, Councilman James has been very involved in the plight of the homeless in Milford, holding roundtable discussions and following up to see if things were improving. Gery stated that as soon as she told him what was happening, Councilman James was on the phone trying to find a solution, reaching out to Governor John Carney and Lieutenant Governor Bethany Hall-Long’s offices. They also reached out to different legislators who have provided lists of organizations and state offices that may be able to help.
“I have reached out to Alexia Wolfe from the Lt. Governor’s Office for assistance to find shelter for the soon to be displaced persons at Tent City,” Councilman James said. “Alexia has connected me to Director Beaman, RN, MHA. Per Director Beaman, DSSC is available to provide temporary emergency housing for those who are eligible. DSAMH will provide support also. this information. I informed her that Martha has the direct relationship with displaced persons and that Jenna (Haines, Behavioral Health Unit at MPD) is a trusted individual as well. With a humble and grateful heart, I want to thank Alexa Wolfe for her prompt attention to this matter and to Director Beaman for your immediate response.”
The issue MAH was facing, Gery explained, is that this occurred during the holiday season, and everyone was either busy with holiday preparation or heading out of town. Although there are discussions about dealing with Milford’s homeless population, many are several years away from completion.
“All the tiny home and pellet home projects council has talked about are on hold until Georgetown’s is up and running,” Gery said when asked about the projects. “They want to see how it works out in Georgetown. So, there’s nothing that is going to happen there any time soon. Right now, we are not getting a lot of help from the city to help these people. We’re an advocacy group and we will continue to advocate for them, but they are citizens. Yes, they are homeless, but they are still part of this community. I have told people not to pick on this new owner, they did what they are supposed to do, and we always knew this could be an issue. But it is a city and state problem. We just need them to figure out what to do as a temporary solution until a more permanent solution can be found.”
Since the announcement, a public meeting was held December 27 at the First Presbyterian Church in hopes that solutions could be found. Gery spoke to Chaplain Al “Positive” Kraft of Positive Eagles Soar, Inc. and Norm of the Milford Lions Club. Chaplain Positive is working to raise funding for hotel rooms for Tent City residents.
“The plan is to start a public campaign to try to get hotel rooms for 45 days,” Gery said. “The idea was that they would put some of the homeless in hotel rooms and then start working with those people to get them into programs. This is not just putting them in a hotel room, but that they would be required to go through the process. We perceive that there are those who really don’t want to go through the process. They are choosing to remain homeless. There are some in Tent City who have exhausted their benefits until April and I don’t know what we are going to do with them until they can start getting benefits again. But, if you don’t want to fill out an intake form or begin the process, we are not going to perpetuate that. We are an advocacy group that wants to help them transition out of homelessness.”
She pointed out that she is currently helping people who, two months ago, were helping MAH, but now they are displaced due to the lack of affordable housing in Milford. Gery believes that landlords could lower rents, but many are unwilling due to the loss of funding many incurred during COVID. One thing she believes would help is an ordinance that would require developers to set aside a percentage of new houses or apartments in new developments for low income housing.
“What I am calling on them to do is integration, to not make low income housing separate,” Gery said. “When you separate people, you are automatically asking for trouble. You’re asking for problems in so many different areas. But if you integrate everyone into different pieces of society, I mean we all know there have always been haves and have nots, but if you put them together, you have a more solid community because everybody feels they belong and they’re treated the same instead of different. It has been done in other areas, but I don’t have the specifics of it.”
Gery suggested that although the city cannot tell a landlord what to charge or a developer what type of housing to build, there could be ordinances that required 10 or 15 percent of the new construction to be set aside for low income families. The developer could choose how that was managed, whether through federal Housing and Urban Development or the state housing office. One of the things Gery is concerned about is the domino effect the closure of Tent City could cause.
“If we don’t find a place that puts everyone in a concentrated area, there’s a lot of things that can happen,” Gery said. “For one Brandywine Drop-In Center and Clinic may not be there anymore because there’s a concentrated population nearby and if people cannot get to them, that’s a problem. That means we lose the one resource we have for people to get showers and get warm. I am very concerned about that. The other thing is, if people are dispersed like this, you will have people who are more desperate, because it will be harder for us to get food to them. Even if we do know where they are, we don’t have a vehicle to run all over town to be able to do that.”
MAH is currently trying to contact DelDOT about the possibility of a donated van. She understands there is a program where vans taken out of service are donated to non-profits. That would help MAH manage the homeless population should it be dispersed throughout the area. She is also concerned there will be more complaints about people hanging out in Bicentennial Park as they will want to be close to places to get food or other basic items. This could lead to a rise in vandalism and thefts, something that has been reduced since MAH began working in Tent City to provide many of the needs of that population.
“The police have told us statistics for some of the things related to homelessness have been reduced because of what we did in Tent City,” Gery said. “That’s all going to be on the rise again, so anyone who thinks “oh, well, it’s not me, it’s just the homeless,” there are going to be more homeless downtown. If people don’t like the panhandling, they’re really not going to like what’s going to happen next if we can’t find a solution for them.”
Several agencies and organizations are working with MAH to try to find a solution, but many of these are years down the road. One organization is trying to purchase property to place either tiny homes or pallet homes, but Gery knows that is a long term solution as it will require purchasing land, going to settlement, finding people to build and funding the entire project.
“Right now, we have people in Tent City who are working full time and need to get back and forth to work,” Gery said. “They don’t have vehicles, so they need to stay close to places where they work, many of which are near the current land. What we are working on is to see if someone will donate a large house or a vacant small business building so we can coordinate a place for them to go. At least if they have to be someplace else, we can get them transportation to a job, to interviews, to appointments or whatever.”
MAH planned to submit a grant to the Lion’s Club for new tents, small heaters and propane, but they are now requesting funds for vouchers for hotel stays. They are also reaching out to local organizations and businesses to obtain funds that would allow the residents of Tent City to have a place to go. She would also like to find a house or building where MAH could continue providing services and would like to talk to Masten Realty about the pink house on Northwest Front Street that is vacant. She explained they were offered a possible building in Harrington, but, although she is very appreciative, she is concerned it is too far away from the jobs some of these people have, so it may not be feasible.
“This is really going to take a village, a community, to do this,” Gery said. “If we all pull together, we can find a way to help these people.”
Gery stated that the next steps are to get intake forms to those who want to fill them out and to work with different agencies to help individuals move forward with their specific needs. MAH is also going to continue working with Chaplain Positive to raise money for hotel rooms as well. She needs volunteers to help with intake forms and who would like to work on the fund raising campaign. Anyone who wants to help with relocating those in Tent City can reach out to Gery by calling 302-643-2470 or email her at [email protected]. More information about the organization can be found at http://milfordadvocacyfrothehomeless.org.
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