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“Hello… it’s Brandywine [counseling]… anybody home? We’re here to do the PIT count.”
It’s 10 p.m. on a rainy January night and volunteers are walking through the woods of Dover near Delaware State University and other locations to visit encampments, shelters and other locations that provide shelter for people experiencing homelessness.
Every year around this time, organization leaders and groups that help people experiencing homelessness gather with volunteers to visit encampments, shelters and other locations that serve people who are unhoused. They conduct street outreach to distribute care bags to both the unhoused and individuals in emergency shelters, transitional housing and safe havens.
The aim of this collaborative effort is twofold: to offer support and resources as well as obtain a snapshot of homelessness on a single night.
As part of their quest to locate individuals living outside, Housing Alliance Delaware, the organizer of the annual point-in-time count, invited WHYY News to join volunteers from Brandywine Counseling’s outreach group in the wooded areas and dimly-lit streets of Kent County on Jan. 24.
Preparing for a long night that ended close to 2 a.m., the team drove to a Wawa store in Milford for a coffee break. With a brief glance, they spotted a veteran who appeared to be experiencing homelessness.
After giving permission for the group to collect his information for the count, he soon opened up and shared his story. He became homeless after his mother passed away, and circumstances forced him to give up their home. He interrupted as outreach workers asked if he was seeking resources. He told the volunteers he’s tried getting assistance, but didn’t find the state very helpful.
Like others the volunteers met, he was handed a care bag.
“We’ve switched to drawstring backpacks and they are filled with basic necessities and essential winter items for anybody we encounter during the count,” said Erin Gallaher, the Continuum of Care program manager with Housing Alliance Delaware.
In addition to the overdose reversing medication Narcan, the packs include “things like hats and hand warmers, first aid kits, and snacks. This year, we were able to work with [the Delaware Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health] to get opioid response kits to go into the care bags for anybody who might need them. We have COVID tests, disposable thermometers and a ton of different items.”
The veteran’s story isn’t uncommon, PIT count organizers say. While the details may vary widely, there are plenty of similarities from people forced into homelessness after facing eviction to escaping domestic abuse. One woman the group met said she survived two instances of rape, which led her to flee her home and ultimately become homeless.
After completing a PIT count with a resident of the wooded area, the Brandywine Counseling outreach group made their way along a muddy pathway. (Johnny Perez-Gonzalez/WHYY)
After a few stops, the volunteers arrived in Dover and approached a nearby encampment.
Making their way down a steep, muddy path illuminated only by the radiant full moon and covered by towering trees, the group encountered flooding a few steps in before stumbling upon a small community of roughly 10 tent homes. Despite attempts to engage with the occupants, a hushed silence enveloped the surroundings, broken only by the gentle rustle of leaves and branches underfoot and the fleeting presence of animals.
Why did they choose not to answer the calls?
The air of silence may have been due to media reports about complaints surrounding a tent encampment set up near Delaware State University’s Dover campus. There had been recent media reports about a Dover council member who took issue with people living in the woods close to campus.
Volunteers say the publicity may have instilled fear among those living in the woods nearby about the possibility of displacement, forcing them to start anew in a different location once again.