Sheraton South

In the short-term, buying a hotel is an innovative solution to house those experiencing homelessness--a number that's rising rapidly with the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Because of COVID-19 space is a problem," said County Executive Matt Meyer. "Our numbers are increasing, and we are literally running out of space."

Already, as many as 634 families are being housed in a dozen motels in New Castle County while nearly 200 individuals are in emergency homeless shelters. As the weather turns colder and eviction moratoriums expire towards the end of the year, those numbers are expected to rise even further.

Now, New Castle County is seeking to purchase the Sheraton South on flood-prone Airport Road, using a portion of the $322.8 million in federal CARES Act money its received, as first reported by WDEL. Bidding began at $5.5 million Monday and closes Wednesday, according to an auction listing.

"Putting our most vulnerable populations in hotels is keeping the virus from spreading--there's some national data that shows when you put homeless people up in hotels, it obviously segregates and separates them; it's a lot easier to quarantine, for example, compared to imagine an open homeless shelter," said Meyer.

He pointed to similar projects in Minnesota, New York, and in California--a state that's dedicated $600 million in CARES Act funding--towards buying hotels to house high-risk populations, according to The Sacramento Bee. It's also a policy that Dr. Ben Carson, Secretary of US Housing and Urban Development, called a "best practice."

But in the long-term, Meyer envisions this shelter could serve as a social services hub, similar to the Community Services building in Wilmington.

"This could be a tremendous hub...for social service organizations that are on the front-lines of addressing issues of addiction and abuse, addressing issues of mental illness, addressing issues of domestic violence, sex trafficking, legal aid, even educational/academic tutoring needs," he told WDEL's Rick Jensen Show.

The county is already providing wraparound services on a much smaller level in a decentralized manner at the dozen motels that are housing persons experiencing homelessness in New Castle County.

"We've given out school supplies; we have regular COVID testing; we're doing intensive case management, doing some housing locator assistance for people who are ready to move into a more permanent housing, assistance with security deposits, employment services," he said. "Moving operations to a single location, obviously, would be a lot easier to centralize these locations."

Security and transportation would be issues that still need to be worked out.

"Getting people to the facility initially; if there are people in the facility who are working either during COVID times or after COVID times, transportation will be a concern, but it's generally true that hopefully in the not-too-distant future as the COVID crisis subsides, transportation will become a bigger issue, getting people in and out of the hotels," he said. "But there are potential partners there--you could imagine some sort of partnership with DART and others to facilitate that." 

"Don't think about us doing something brand new...we're potentially doing something bigger and more ambitious than has been done before, but we certainly have learned about by the operations of numerous transitional housing, how to secure them, how to fund them, how to provide wraparound services," he said.

If the county is successful in bidding for the hotel, which recently underwent a $6.4 million renovation, its goal would be to ensure county taxpayers aren't on the hook for its continued operations as a homeless shelter.

"Our belief is the funding is there to operate this thing on an ongoing basis without having a detrimental impact on the county budget." 

Meyer didn't have details on what a management contract might cost, but he noted cost is different during COVID-19 times. There's a possibility that current owner, Hersha Hospitality Management, based in Pennsylvania, could bid to manage the site. 

"There are many resources available--federal and state resources--to fund transitional housing like this. It's been used in the past by organizations like the RVRC [Rick VanStory Resource Center] and the YMCA [in Wilmington] whose shelters have closed in recent years," said Meyer. "They were funded, historically, through a combination of federal, state grants, some private money, and this we anticipate will be similarly funded, and then we'll get an operator to come in and operate it."

"But that's not the primary reason we're doing this...when you have an active viral contagion out there--that we may or may not agree how contagious it is, how dangerous it is--but it's clear there's some danger there--and it would benefit all of us for this contagion to be reduced and go away. To have any population where it's spreading rampantly, as it has in some places in the country, we need to do whatever we can to stop that for everyone's public health."