ERs, train stations and 'bandos': where Wilmington's homeless sleep

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Jeanne Kuang - Delaware Online

A mother shepherding three children who needed to be in school the next morning, waiting for a ride at the Wilmington Amtrak station. 

A man who does home repair jobs when he can, and said he was ready to return to a methadone clinic to treat his heroin addiction. 

A woman who sends her kids to live with friends, while preparing to spend the night in a hospital waiting room chair. 

On Wednesday night, as temperatures dipped below freezing, these people – and their stories – were counted among the "unsheltered" homeless in Wilmington, a term advocates use to describe those staying anywhere not meant for people to sleep. 

The annual volunteer-conducted "point in time" count, intended to capture a picture of homelessness nationwide on a single night in January, brought to light shortages in affordable housing units that advocates say plague Delaware as much as they do the rest of the nation. 

Housing Alliance Delaware, the statewide organization that coordinates the count, says in 2019 there were only 38 affordable rental units available for every 100 of the poorest Delawareans.

It adds up to a statewide shortage of nearly 15,000 units, the bulk of which are needed in New Castle County. Last year, the groups said it receives about 300 calls a day from people looking for a shelter bed that night.

"I've been on the housing list for eight years," said Kristen Spiezio, the woman resigned to the waiting room chair. "I reapply every single year."

Spiezio and half a dozen others were settled under the fluorescent lights of St. Francis Hospital's ER waiting room when volunteers came in to conduct their surveys. 

She said she works part time and stays "wherever I can."

In Wilmington, the loss of 65 emergency shelter beds more than a year ago with the closure of SafeSpace Delaware (also known as RVRC) continues to reverberate.

It has left the Sunday Breakfast Mission as the most well-known shelter in town, but several staying on the streets said it's frequently crowded and forces them to leave early in the morning.

Instead, a woman who asked to be identified by only her first name, Virginia, said she and her friends preferred to find a "bando" — an abandoned house. 

There are plenty of bandos to be found within walking distance of the I-95 overpass at Fourth and Jackson streets, where volunteers found Virginia and three friends sharing cigarettes, gathered around their belongings in the shadow of a concrete pylon.

Highway traffic and sirens blared by as the volunteers drilled down the list of survey questions: 

Have you been diagnosed with any disabilities? Chronic health conditions? Drug use? Do you receive any disability benefits? 

Virginia's friend, the man who does home-repair jobs, said he had just filed for disability benefits and was prepared to seek addiction treatment soon. He had been homeless, on and off, for about 20 years, he said.

"If they would just give people like us one of these houses," Virginia said, "we'll fix it up ourselves. We'll find a job – if we could just have somewhere to take a shower."

The count of Delaware's homeless has hovered around 1,000 for the past five years, according to Housing Alliance.

But it's an imperfect picture, dependent on where people can be found. 

Volunteers converged on a McDonald's parking lot on Fourth Street, where volunteer Dr. Sandra Gibney said she regularly encounters a dozen homeless people while handing out doses of naloxone, the overdose-reversal medication.

When they arrived Wednesday night, a police car was parked there – and the homeless were nowhere to be seen.

Housing Alliance workers warned against optimism when the count dropped to 921 in 2019. In the wake of RVRC's closing, those who were provided "private, but temporary shelter" would not have been counted, according to the organization's annual report.

The unsheltered count will be added to the number of people found in shelters for a total count of the homeless population. 

Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long, who participated in the count, described trends in homelessness as "more of a constant steady."

"It's mental health. It's substance abuse. It's children and households," she said. 


Contact Jeanne Kuang at jkuang@delawareonline.com or (302) 324-2476. Follow her on Twitter at @JeanneKuang.


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