A Delaware hotel is helping house some of state's homeless residents amid coronavirus
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More than 500 of Delaware's most vulnerable population – those without homes and stable medical care – have been contacted and assessed by state and health officials in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Since then, a Wilmington hotel has stepped up and opened its door to house those considered most at risk for getting and spreading COVID-19, the disease derived from this new coronavirus that is spreading rapidly throughout the state.
It's all part of an effort to bring medical and social services under one roof – in this case, at this downtown hotel.
The state Department of Health and Social Services declined to name the Wilmington hotel. Officials said caring for this population can also bring about stigma and they did not want to draw added attention to the location.
By having one primary location, rather than housing people in various motels dotting Delaware's highways, services can be provided on a 24-hour basis, said Rita Landgraf, a former secretary for the state health department who was brought back to lead this outreach effort.
"Some of this is, we're building the plane as we're flying it," said Landgraf, who also works as a professor at the University of Delaware. She added that Delaware is looking to Philadelphia, which has also repurposed some hotels as emergency housing, as a model.
The move also has given the state the opportunity to support local hotels and motels that are otherwise significantly under-occupied given Delaware's emergency restrictions. Gov. John Carney made his most recent announcement Sunday, which ordered anyone traveling to Delaware from out-of-state to self-quarantine for 14 days.
Funding for these emergency housing placements comes from two pots within the state health department. One focuses on placing those most at risk, with underlying health conditions or with children into housing. The other focuses on those with persistent mental illness or substance use disorder, according to Landgraf.
Under the virus-prompted stimulus package signed last week by President Donald Trump, the state hopes to see $4.2 million to help Delaware's most vulnerable people, according to Landgraf. The state said last week it would ideally like to place everyone into housing through this pandemic.
About 75 people have been placed into emergency housing since the outreach effort began Wednesday, Landgraf said.
"If you can call it a silver lining," Langraf added, "in a typical day-in, day-out, we might not have found any of these people."
Outside the Wilmington hotel Monday, outreach workers in masks were seen jotting down information from a line of hotel room hopefuls.
There was some confusion at the Creative Vision Factory in downtown Wilmington, where some of the city’s homeless sat on the sidewalk, waiting for a call that they’d been placed in a room. Some of last week’s health outreach efforts had taken place outside the arts nonprofit’s doors, where staff have set up a coffee and phone-charging station despite the center being closed amid the crisis.
Director Michael Kalmbach and project manager Joe Netta moved in and out of the building, between the crowd, a nearby state service center and the hotel, taking stock of concerns and helping to coordinate placements.
Karl Niedershuh, who stays at the Sunday Breakfast Mission, said he was screened for possible signs of the virus by a nurse at the shelter last Friday, and hoped to hear about a hotel room soon.
Dr. Sandy Gibney, who has been leading the medical outreach portion of this initiative and helping to screen patients in New Castle and Kent counties, said her team screened 157 people at the mission Friday. Even more were screened at the Emmanuel Dining Room that same day.
“I’m on somebody’s list,” Niedershuh said.
He said while the shelter was making efforts to socially distance clients during meals, residents are still crowded together at night and during mandatory religious services.
Cheryl Austin, who The News Journal interviewed two weeks ago when she found locked doors at the arts center, said after being screened at the Mission last Friday, she has already been placed in a room at the Wilmington hotel.
She was told she could stay at least 21 days, and commented on the quality of the room.
“It’ll take some getting used to,” she said.
And the outreach is far from over.
Landgraf said the state is actively creating teams for each county in order to make sure the most vulnerable statewide are getting help. Right now, she said, her focus is finding a physician or nurse practitioner to lead outreach efforts in Sussex County.
The state is already using nurses on the front lines who have been redeployed to help the homeless. And social service workers are already available through the state health department.
In order for it to be successful, though, the two programs must deploy together.
The hope long-term? That the housing and services provided through this pandemic will last far beyond the cases of COVID-19, Landgraf said.
Contact Brittany Horn at (302) 324-2771 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @brittanyhorn.