There are homeless camps in Brandywine Hundred?
That was the initial reaction I, and surely many others, had to the story about Monty the K-9 dog that was attacked by a pit bull during a New Castle County Police investigation of a homeless encampment in Penny Hill. The News Journal article also reported a similar situation near Marsh and Veale Roads, in the heart of North Wilmington suburbia.
The story comes amid a run of media coverage on the plight of homeless people in Delaware, and reports of additional encampments from Rehoboth to an area near Rte. 273 in Newark to the city of Wilmington and some woods off the Concord Pike.
Although chronic homelessness in the state has seen a recent increase, the overall homeless population in Delaware is still fairly small, perhaps 1,000 or so individuals at any given time. But these 21st century Hoovertowns are a vivid demonstration of the kind poverty in extremis that has come to be a way of life for far too many who might have once been described as the working poor.
Unable to cope with financial obligations – perhaps due to some trauma, bad luck or bad decisions – these individuals have slipped into a scary, lonely abyss, often abetted by addiction and disconnected from any network of family and friends.
West End Neighborhood House executive director Paul Calistro is one of the state’s leading experts on housing and economic security issues and he says the problem is significant and bound by a consistent thread. “There are camps all over the state,” Calistro told me. “These are largely white, former residents of suburban neighborhoods. They often refuse help and do not trust or feel safe in the system. Many have had addiction issues with drugs including heroin and pain killers. They often camp near the communities they have lived in.”
Recent reports show unemployment is down in Delaware and that’s good news, to the extent it is an accurate or valuable barometer of our economic health. Wages continue to stagnate, however, and a stubborn, deepening chasm lingers between the incomes of those doing well and Americans living increasingly at the rim of destitution.
Some 240,000 Delawareans – more than one fourth of our population – participate in Medicaid, the government health program for the lowest income citizens, and the Food Bank of Delaware reports an equal amount of customers. How many of these quarter million people are at risk of sliding into the kind of desperate penury experienced by those inhabiting the suburban camps?
No one should have to endure a night exposed to these frigid temperatures, so we should all support organizations like West End and the Homeless Planning Council of Delaware in their work to get people out of the tents and into warm beds and transitional opportunities.
Beyond that, having so many in our state reliant on public aid and private charity is an unsustainable future we cannot accept. For as we have seen, theirs is a plight that will inevitably come to touch every neighborhood.