Seventy-three people, four dogs and one cat are so far benefiting from accommodations at New Castle County’s Hope Center, the former Sheraton hotel near New Castle that’s now the state’s newest and largest shelter for the homeless.
“We’re protecting the most at risk,” New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer said in a Facebook Live event broadcast Monday from the center.
The county closed on the site on Dec. 1, and county officials, partner agencies and the hotel’s management worked quickly for a soft opening two weeks later. Hotel manager Danielle Hennessy is managing the Hope Center.
“They’ve lost a lot of their lifelines,” Kim Eppeheimer, executive director of the Friendship House, said of people living on the street whose access to services and buildings have been cut by the pandemic. Their needs are exacerbated in bad, Code Purple winter weather.
The goal is to provide what Meyer called “wraparound services to transition.”
That means immediate needs, like physical care (St. Francis Healthcare is a partner, and they’re talking with ChristianaCare), mental health and substance abuse (from the Bridge Clinic), food (meals and snacks, prepared off-site and delivered to rooms) and transportation (an hourly shuttle 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. to a bus stop, and bus tickets).
That also means future needs, like housing outside of the shelter and other social services.
Meyer said that the county has asked DART First State to add a bus stop nearby. The facility is on an isolated stretch of Airport Road, just off Interstate 95.
Operations at the center follow pandemic guidelines, starting with screening of everyone coming in. People are encouraged to stay in their rooms, when not working or getting help. The hotel can hold 400. There’s a COVID-19 floor, and 88 rooms are handicap-accessible.
The main criterion for admission is not being sheltered, Eppeheimer, said. Those having such needs must call the state’s service center system at 1-833-FIND-BED. It’s not yet accepting walk-ins.
Unlike shelters in pre-pandemic times, it’s open during the day for its wraparound services. It does not have a curfew. Staff members and security systems monitor comings and goings.
The county in October paid $19.5 million for the 192-room, 6.5-acre property at an auction, and Meyer said that’s less than 10% of its allocation of federal CARES Act funding to cope with the pandemic. All such funding must be spent by Dec. 31.
Meyer said here’s enough federal, state, county and municipal funding to run the center through at least June 2022. “Post-COVID, we’re not sure what direction we’ll be going in.”
Individuals and nonprofit agencies have already been helping. The county is steering individual donations to DART passes, gift cards and other items that are easy to screen for COVID. It’s set up at 501(c)(3) charity and a webpage for the center, whose name stands for Homeless Operations Providing for Everyone, credited to Jeffery Broughton, lead pastor of Living Grace Worship Cathedral in Middletown.
“It was bold. It was unusual,” Meyer said. And it won the unanimous vote of county council.