Photos by Joe Del Tufo
Delaware’s Hope Center—the largest homeless shelter on the East Coast—provides compassion and care while helping those down on their luck regain stability.
When the COVID-19 pandemic upended our lives nearly three years ago, it took an especially hard toll on Delaware’s adults and children without permanent homes.
As employment statuses, finances, childcare concerns and school schedules became more precarious, the state’s social service agencies saw the numbers of homeless people—both individuals and families—rise sharply.
According to the Delaware Continuum of Care, the Housing Alliance of Delaware found in its recent “point of time assessment” that an estimated 2,369 people were experiencing homelessness by February 23, 2022. This was more than double the number in January 2020, pre-pandemic. The alliance also found that the number of households with children experiencing homelessness has almost tripled since 2020, from 136 families to 389.
Closings and restrictions continued to exacerbate the problem.
“When COVID-19 hit Delaware on March 14, 2020, those who were already homeless lost their lifelines—access to local coffee shops, churches, libraries, bathrooms and more,” explains Kim Eppehimer, the executive director of Friendship House of Delaware, who has worked with the nonprofit since 2014. “The shelters required them to get out in the morning, wear masks and be socially distanced, and it literally happened overnight. It was terrible for our local folks, and it hasn’t stopped.”
She and other local experts explain that many of the area’s residents without a home were living paycheck to paycheck or lost their jobs, and many didn’t qualify for additional benefits.
“One of the most important lessons my children endured was having to live in the van.…The emphasis we have in our family is that a lot of people envision the term ‘home’ as an actual building—but we feel like as long as we are together, we are home.”
The response to this crisis, with funds from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, was for New Castle County to purchase the closed Sheraton Wilmington South and convert it into a homeless shelter named the New Castle County Hope Center.
Opening in December 2020, the Hope Center was managed for just over a year by Friendship House before the Delaware Center for Homeless Veterans took over earlier this year. For its nearly 400 residents, the East Coast’s largest homeless shelter has provided a safe space, as well as a clothing bank, bus tickets and other necessities. Among the center’s current residents are about 184 children, including 15 babies born since the facility opened.
To accommodate the growing need for space, the center aims to help residents devise goals and an exit plan, explains co-founder Carrie Casey, general manager for the New Castle County Department of Community Services. (She founded the center with Nicole Waters, a community services administrator for the same agency.)
In addition to rooms for single men and women, families, and individuals with pets, the shelter provides on-site services, including access to housing transition and sustainability planning; medical doctors and medications; licensed therapists and substance abuse counseling; job assistance; and access to resources like food stamps and temporary assistance.
Soon after pandemic restrictions eased in May 2021 and life began to return to normal, the Delta variant emerged, and with it, Friendship House and other agencies were flooded with new requests for help with rent, utilities and housing.
Homelessness is defined as more than not having a roof over one’s head; it’s a lack of community. Describing how they wound up at the center, many residents point to a lack of resources, job loss, illness, unstable home situations and other unforeseen circumstances. Hope Center is for those who are out of options.
“I tell our participants that the only difference between you and me is that you currently do not have a home—[and] homelessness should be rare, brief, and non-recurring,” Waters says.
Waters points out a common misconception that people who experience homelessness did something to cause their unfortunate situation, they don’t want housing or they are not employable. In fact, often they are too ashamed to ask for help and circumstances spin out of control. “Before you know it, they have lost their house and financial footing,” she explains. “The resources are here to help you transition out of homelessness.…This is a do-over for everyone who is here. You are trying to make a change, and that’s all you need.”
No matter how nice a facility is, Waters adds, there is nothing like your own home. “No one wants to be homeless. They want their own space. These are smart, funny, caring people who want to work and want to have joy in their life just like everybody else. They deserve every opportunity to get to that point where they don’t have to feel so hopeless and afraid. And each person who is moved by these stories is a true gift to the community.”
As 2023 approaches, Waters says that the focus is on programs for subsidized rent, security deposits and other opportunities to get individuals and families back in their own apartments or houses. One “rent readiness” program, she says, helps adults at the center learn how to become a sought-after tenant, despite previous financial issues.
Other local agencies also focus on preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place. “If you can save yourself from entering the homeless system, that is the ultimate goal,” Waters says, also noting the availability of rental and mortgage assistance funds to help with late rent, utility and mortgage payments. “Because once an eviction and homelessness happens, it can be extremely challenging to obtain housing quickly.”
Here, we meet a few of the Hope Center’s residents and learn their stories—and how they’re going from surviving to thriving.
Marshall Ginn, U.S. Navy Veteran
In 2006, Marshall Ginn was involved in a terrible car accident. He could no longer work because of his injuries, and he didn’t have any savings. After four years of lawsuits, attorney fees and medical bills had cost him his home.
A close friend took Ginn and his wife, Karen, into his Dover home. But after Karen and his friend both passed away, his friend’s children, who inherited the home, evicted Ginn so they could sell it.
With no other choice, the U.S. Navy veteran (1977–1984) ended up living in his van for about a year, visiting gas stations and other local stores for bathrooms and convenience food. That was until he went to a church for coffee and doughnuts and learned about the Hope Center. Ginn moved in shortly after it opened.
He was receiving therapy for PTSD and medical treatment for his Type 2 diabetes, and was on the Housing Authority’s waiting list for months for housing placement. He frequently met with social workers at the center to coordinate his care.
“I would have been happy with any shelter, but this was more than a cot and a cup of coffee,” Ginn says, noting a friendly staff and new friendships. Not only was he made to feel welcome and comfortable, so were his 16-year-old cockapoo and 11-year-old yellow Labrador retriever.
Ginn estimates that 99% of the homeless people he’s met over the years “are just trying to get by from one day to the next, and a lot of factors came into play that got them here,” he says. “My entire life I’ve tried to be self-sufficient, but things just happen where you need to have a helping hand.”
He’s regaining that self-sufficiency now. Earlier this year, Ginn moved into his own one-bedroom senior subsidized apartment at Luther Towers in Wilmington, where he happily settled in with both of his dogs.
Carnethia Steward, Former Model
Carnethia Steward, 53, was happily renting a basement apartment in Elkton, Maryland, until her landlord married a man who she says was dissatisfied with his new wife’s rental arrangements.
As a result, he shut off the utilities, and most of Steward’s belongings were ruined when the sump pump backed up. She immediately found herself living in motels—until she could no longer afford them. Then she started sleeping in her car.
A Delaware friend who was living in Section 8 housing urged Steward to call a hotline to find housing. She moved to the center in January 2021, where she could even see a doctor from ChristianaCare who treats her for severe carpal tunnel issues, and neck, knee and spine maladies.
A former model, Steward spends much of her time reading and making craft projects, and would love to use her artistic eye to take photographs. She was approved for a housing voucher for permanent housing in Delaware and is sharing the information she received about the new Section 8–11 programs to give the Hope Center administrators the fruits of her research. This year, she has been admitted to the hospital several times for her ailments but remains hopeful that she will get her second chance.
“I have no idea when they will find me a place,” Steward says, “but for the time being, I like it here. I like the people and I feel safe. This is not my permanent home, but I know there is a home for me out there.”
Paula Kennedy, Former Teacher and Mother of 8
When Dover resident Paula Kennedy parted ways with her now ex-husband, her stability crumbled with the marriage.
The 46-year-old former teacher and mother of eight children, ages 8 to 21, had been living with her parents when in the middle of COVID-19 she and her children were asked to leave. For four weeks, the only place they had to live was Kennedy’s van.
She and seven of her children moved to the center in April 2021. Her younger children are once again settled into school (with backpacks filled with school supplies and appropriate clothing), while her older children are landing jobs. She’s finding ways to increase her family’s income and build stability for everyone.
“One of the most important lessons my children endured was having to live in the van,” Kennedy says. “The emphasis we have in our family is that a lot of people envision the term ‘home’ as an actual building—but we feel like as long as we are together, we are home.” She often reminds her children that “family values will take you further than anything else, especially material possessions.”
While we cannot always control what happens in life, Kennedy points out, “We just have to navigate and make the best decisions that we can.” While she seeks an apartment or house to accommodate her large family, she remains at the center, hopeful that her second chance—“a simple family life” is around the corner.
“Life is what you make of it; we have our health, we have food to eat and we are together.”