Homelessness in Milford discussion continues

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Milford City Council continued discussing how to address the homeless situation in Milford

Milford City Council continued its discussion regarding homelessness in Milford at a recent workshop. City Manager Mark Whitfield explained that there were four issues related to homelessness in the city, including the lack of affordable housing, Tent City, homeless gathering in downtown parks and panhandling on Route 113.

“We can probably easily address the panhandling situation,” Whitfield said. “I provided ordinances from a few sister communities throughout Delaware. There are a few of them that I a not sure would stand up to legal standards, but the one from Seaford seems to have stood the test of time in that it is a safety concern to have people in the median or at a corner on a highway. What they have done is basically written an ordinance stating that you cannot stand there for more than two light changes. If you’re there for more than two light changes, it becomes a violation. You have to move on, and you cannot do it within 200 feet of an intersection. So far that has been successful in Seaford. Seaford has also worked with the development corporations that own the strip malls where they have gotten letters from the property owners asking that panhandlers not be permitted on their property, allowing police to keep them moving on to other locations.”

Councilman Todd Culotta stated that he had gotten a lot of feedback from residents about the situation in general and that he liked Seaford’s ordinance as it was anti-loitering and not anti-panhandling. This would solve the problem of safety as people would not be permitted to loiter in intersections or medians on the highway. He also pointed out that many of those who were homeless were receiving all the basic resources they needed from groups like Brandywine Counseling and Milford Advocacy for the Homeless.

“You can even get a shower at Brandywine Counseling,” Councilman Culotta said. “It doesn’t necessarily solve the homeless issue because your basic needs are met. The argument that I need to panhandle to support myself a little bit doesn’t really work. An ordinance much like Seaford’s would solve that.” Councilman Culotta asked if the homeless encampment, which is now called Tent City, stemmed from displacement of homeless from local hotels as the pandemic ended.

Councilman Jason James stated that he thought the homeless encampment began during COVID and Councilman Culotta explained that he noticed more homeless at strip malls and intersections, leading to multiple complaints from citizens. Councilman James agreed, but felt council had a duty to find a safe place for everyone in the city regardless of economic status but was not sure how to move those without homes into sustainable housing.

“We can’t provide housing, but we can create an avenue where they are truly in the game saying all of those who want to change their condition can, because you have to want your condition to be better,” Councilman James said. “That’s not everyone. It’s just the fact that we can facilitate a path to that. I think we should play a part for their safety and welfare because you may not necessarily be safe where they are. Things could happen but we do have all the other citizens of Milford. We have an obligation to them also for a safe peaceful environment.”

Councilman James pointed out that he worried about the safety of drivers as well as those who were panhandling. Driving a larger vehicle, he was often afraid his mirrors would strike one of the people begging on Route 113. He also explained that realtors expressed to him that they were trying to bring people into Milford to either relocate or open businesses and that panhandlers were a deterrent for many.

“I don’t want to dis these people,” Councilman James said. “I don’t want this to be an approach that all these people are bad people are drug addicts or whatever. That they are there because they want to be. That is never true. I just want to be humane in our approach to this. We do have an obligation to the citizens who want to be free from what they consider harassment and affecting their business.”

Councilman Andy Fulton pointed out that the citizenry of Milford had big hearts and that, for the most part, wanted to help those who were less fortunate. However, citizens also wanted to be able to walk from one store to another without someone with their hand out. He was concerned that people would simply avoid going to certain business areas to avoid panhandling.

“It’s reducing commerce, it’s reducing everything because these are big-hearted people who are wanting to support those who have less economic standing, but are concerned with the, I don’t want to use the word harassment, but the constant “help me, help me,” and what we don’t want is for our heart to ever be hardened,” Councilman Fulton said. “There has to be a pathway out for people who want to be helped and their own self want is a factor because, just like you said, some people are perfectly happy, and they don’t want to change. They like living off the grid and they don’t want to be sucked back into society where it is evil as far as they are concerned. But some want to come back and be part of society.”

Councilman Fulton felt that Seaford’s ordinances would be a good steppingstone but that there had to be some type of limitation as an open door policy could lead to a growth in the homeless population. For those who wanted to remain off the grid or who did not want to be part of society, using resources for those individuals would pull assistance from those who wanted to end their homelessness. Councilman Culotta agreed that the focus had to be on a hand up and not a handout. He felt that it was important not to enable people to remain homeless. Mayor Archie Campbell pointed out that Georgetown was in the process of creating a pallet house encampment with a communal center to address their homeless issue.

“Those are great in theory,” Councilman Culotta said. “But like Andy just said, some people are going to be homeless regardless. The issue is also where do you put these? In a residential area? Then Dan’s neighbors complain. We put it on the highway, in the business park and then they are too far out of the way. There is a lot to be worked out here.”

Councilman James stated that he wanted council to make a decision on how this issue would be addressed.

“You know, we have had a lot of conversations, we can have a lot of workshops and a lot of presentations,” Councilman James said. “We can discuss what we are able to do and the best approach to help. We can’t solve all the problems but what problems can we solve and how can we facilitate that? At some point, we have to move from dialogue to act with an action plan.”

Mayor Campbell explained that when he worked in Manhattan, there was an entire city of people who lived in the subway, especially during the winter. Councilman Fulton reminded council that he mentioned California in an earlier discussion where they created small homes and encampments in the Los Angeles area in order to address the homeless problem. Unfortunately, the homeless problem increased as people moved to the area to take advantage of the programs offered and now there was difficulty funding those programs.

“We can’t afford that, it would not be beneficial,” Councilman Fulton said. “The more services offered, and I know this will sound terrible, but the more services offered, the more people are attracted. There’s no buy-in from them and you get less care taken in whatever it is you give. That ends up destroying what you put in place. You become overwhelmed and it can go backwards. People will choose not to live here or to live out in the country. It’s a domino effect. And where do we draw the line? My heart of hearts says give until it hurts but my realist heart gets me in trouble because there is only so much you can do. Once you hit that line, you cannot go beyond it. That is why I am a fan of grants with time limitations, with registrations. You know who is there, how long they have been there and when they have to go.”

Councilman Dan Marabello explained that he worked on a program called Circle of Life that provided food, helped the homeless find showers and that he had actually performed drug tests on some of the people in that community himself. He acknowledged that although it did not always work well, council had to do something because these were human beings.

“There are three types of homeless,” Mayor Campbell said. “There are those that want to be homeless, that like being homeless. There are those who want to get out of it. And then you have those with mental illness and that is a big one.”

Agreeing with Councilman James, Councilwoman Nirmala Samaroo pointed out that the city needed a pathway to a solution. She was aware of non-profit organizations that helped with shelter and that after talking to them, she learned that a lot of the homeless in the area were over 65 while others were awaiting VA disability which can be a long process.

“What we try to do is get them from where they are to being viable people in society,” Martha Gery, founder and President of Milford Advocacy for the Homeless. “We give them guidance, food, shelter. So, a typical week for me is being in Tent City two or three times talking with them. We want to help them. Somebody gave a comment about how much is a handout and we do put a limit. We will give you food. We will make sure you don’t go to bed hungry. And we will make sure you have someplace to sleep. We don’t have housing, so if that means giving you a tent, that is what we do. They talk to each other and some of them end up in Tent City. If I hear they are going there, I tell them that they are squatting.”

Gery explained that during the winter, her organization was able to provide small heaters with propane canisters to at least give them a few hours of warmth. She commented that as the weather turns cold, the population of Tent City decreases as many of those who live there in the summer “make nice” with their family in order to have a warm place to sleep.

“So let me ask you a question,” Councilman Culotta said. “I think that is very admirable. I think it’s very helpful to many people. But is it? Would it make sense to have meals two or three days per week? So, then people don’t say “Oh, I am always going to have a meal.” Plus, now I will get the resources I need. I don’t want to sound mean.”

Gery asked Councilman Culotta if he would like to go a few days without eating to which Councilman Culotta stated that he didn’t have to as he had a job. Gery then stated that Councilman Culotta also likely had two forms of ID and an address.

“Yes, because I have a job,” Councilman Culotta said. “Look, I work in construction. I use day laborers for various stuff. I use them for various tasks, but I don’t keep them employed all the time. And I’ve had them come back to me and say, “you want some food, you just go down there and if I want this, I just go there.” They get the things they need, and it doesn’t cost them anything. I hope eventually they can support themselves in normal society but are we enabling them with Tent City and too much rather than helping them get to the next level.”

Gery stated that her organization did partner with various groups to try to help transition those who wanted to do so out of homelessness. They connect them with places to get identification and provide them with information about Brandywine Counseling. However, they must make the appointments at Brandywine themselves and they must get themselves to interviews for jobs. Her organization worked closely with places like Perdue, Sea Watch and US Cold Storage to find jobs for many of those dealing with homelessness. However, there were still issues that those who were homeless faced that others may not.

“We have more homeless that are hired than ever before,” Gery said. “They go to work. But they can’t get a shower in the morning. They cannot eat all day. So, they come home and have to figure out what to eat, they need to spend some of that money on food. They can only use a bathroom out in the open. So, now they have a hygiene problem, and they could lose their job due to hygiene. They don’t have the money to buy the clothes they need for work, or they can’t wash their clothing often. One load of clothing at the local laundromat to wash and dry can cost $25.”

The goal of Milford Advocacy for the Homeless, according to Gery, was to work closely with those who were newly homeless in order to prevent them getting comfortable with homelessness. She explained that once people were imbedded in homelessness, it was very difficult to transition them out of it. Many are families and most are over the age of 55, a lot of them on disability. She explained that they were trying to find a community building where they could provide hot meals, showers and laundry facilities. Although Code Purple was an excellent resource in the winter, the program has limited hours. The issue with the community building was that it needed to be close to the commercial area of town as her organization provided bikes so that those who wanted jobs were able to get to them easily.

“I want to bring up the letter we got from the business owner downtown,” Councilman Culotta said. “We have a park downtown and there used to be a building there but now it’s a park. It’s wonderful for things like the Farmer’s Market, but there’s a limit to that, I believe. You can have an ordinance that says the park is open all day but at 10 PM, there’s no loitering in that park. That’s one way to fix some of what they are complaining about. Now, if the complaint is people are sitting on a bench during the day and it effects their ice cream business, well, if they are not breaking the law, there is not much you can do about it. The park is public land.”

Gery explained that she talked to the homeless about not bringing attention to themselves.

“I’m talking to about 50 people on any given day and saying “hey, don’t bring attention to yourself,” even the panhandling,” Gery said. “If you notice, and I encourage you to count, it is typically four at the most. You are talking about four people and sometimes they switch on and off. Sometimes the people are integrated. Sometimes they are on drugs, and I wouldn’t expect you to give them a penny. But, if we don’t have some way for them to get some sort of money, that number is going to go up because there are things we don’t provide.”

Many of them have prescriptions that require a co-pay, Gery explained, and although it may seem like a small amount to most people, it could be a significant amount to a homeless person. Some of them have not made the best decisions in the past and may need funds to pay court fines.

“I had somebody working in my yard this week because they are paying a fine so they would not go back to jail,” Gery said. “So, there are things that they need money for, and we don’t have the resources to help them.”

Pointing out that there were many places that offered resources, Councilman Culotta disagreed with Gery.

“Avenue Church has a food pantry, you can go to that food pantry if you need it,” Councilman Culotta said. “They also direct you to other services that are available that they partner with. That food pantry feeds other food pantries. Your point about medication and things like that, there are states services for that available by Benvenuto or whatever. If I need a place to stay tonight, I can hit star two on my phone and get a voucher for a room.”

Gery encouraged Councilman Culotta to do that as beds were not available. She explained that the homeless dial any number they can to find a bed and there are none available. Councilman Fulton asked about children and Gery explained that, although she has not control over Tent City, she has told those living there that children could not live there as it was too dangerous. Currently, there are no children living there and most of those who have children have placed them with family or friends. She also makes it clear to those living in Tent City they are on private land with no right to be there. Councilman Fulton pointed out that her organization did support them squatting on the land and Gery stated that if he meant by giving them a tent, Councilman Fulton was correct but that she would not just “stand by and do nothing.”

“If I had different options, I would definitely take them, but I am playing the cards I was dealt,” Gery said. “There hasn’t always been a Tent City. We have had it for about four years now. Before that they were in all different areas. They’re more consolidating now and I don’t mean that in a rude way. If anyone can give me a different option, I will happily do that option. I tell them all the time; I don’t have a shelter. I don’t have housing. I’m sure you are all aware of the housing issue. You cannot get an apartment for less than $1,000 a month. We have multiple people making a salary and they can afford $600 a month. They have been looking for three or four years now but they just cannot afford housing.”

Bringing the conversation back to homeless shelters or pallet homes, Councilman Culotta felt that this would be an option to help those who could not afford rent with the understanding they would work toward finding permanent housing. In addition, he felt that the city should look into a homeless shelter.

“Since we have no shelter in Milford, they developed one on their own,” Councilman Culotta said. “So, we could say we are going to clean up Tent City and get it out of here, but where will they go if they don’t have resources? That is a discussion about costs and management, but I agree that there’s really a responsibility to people in our society.”

Councilman James asked Whitfield to look at what options were available and what steps the city needed to undertake to begin addressing the homeless situation.

“Because we know the state of things and we thank Martha for her vision,” Councilman James said. “We’ve got to look at that vision because we need to come together and decide what we are willing to do.”

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