Sheraton South Hotel

Those experiencing homelessness in New Castle County have a safe and warm place to go just in time for the first winter storm of the season.

The former Sheraton hotel on Airport Road near New Castle, which was purchased at auction by the county with $19.5 million in federal CARES Act money, officially opened its doors Tuesday as an emergency shelter during the pandemic, less than a month after settlement.

It's now called the New Castle County Hope Center.

Friendship House, which is running Code Purple operations from the shelter, picked up the first guests at 11 a.m. Tuesday. A total of 70 guests were pre-registered to spend their first night in the hotel just in time for the winter storm. Starting Monday, the facility will take referrals from the state service system. The facility has 192 rooms and capacity for 400 people at full occupancy.

"These are folks that are currently living outside or in their car. They deserve the dignity of a place to live right now. Many have been outside 23 out of 24 hours a day for the last month, freezing, cold and feeling forgotten. It's really challenging surviving right now--not only through the weather--but they're terrified of getting COVID," said Carrie Casey, Manager of New Castle County's Community Development and Housing Department.

Casey was the brains behind this operation, which is taking COVID-19 protocols and offering voluntary testing.

"All guests will enter through the side of the hotel, so they will not be entering through the front door because it's too large of an area to secure safely and to make sure that we have the proper intake and COVID screening," she said. "Obviously, it's voluntary, but we're going to encourage folks to get a COVID test."

Anyone who presents symptoms of COVID-19 will be quarantined to a restricted area on the sixth floor.

The goal of the entire process is to keep families together. To that end, Faithful Friends is also on-site for guests who have dogs. Casey said projects like this go a long way towards stabilizing families. 

"This situation has really taught us how important having your own space and bathroom, especially during COVID, is for a person's personal health. So I think the motel system model that we've been using since March, basically, has really kept people one--most important thing--from getting COVID. We've done COVID testing at most of the hotels in New Castle County that have people experiencing homelessness, and we're not seeing cases of COVID at these hotel because keeping them safe is also helping stabilize the person. When they have a room, and a bathroom, and three meals, it's not that constant battle for survival."

"Bringing people in and providing them a room, and a bathroom, and meals--it's the place people need to be right now, and that's what the Hope Center hopes to provide."

For now, the property won't be using the hotel's ballroom for congregate housing, but that could change if there's a surge in homelessness during cold winter months.

"We have to be able to be flexible, but we're just nervous about the COVID," said Casey. "Things have skyrocketed in that category, so we just want to make sure we're keeping people safe."

Former property owners, Hersha Hospitality Management, have stayed on  under a $2.5 million contract and will continue managing the property taking over housecleaning, maintenance, and staffing the front desk.

"They have literally worked 24 hours a day to get get this hotel ready for guests," said Casey.

From day one, Casey said mental and behavioral health services, including the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health's satellite clinic, would be open and provided on-site.

"People have come to us, to say: 'I want to help you.' It's been a tough year, but that has been something that I feel is going to make this place a success is people truly caring about other people.

Down the road, the county aims to be tasked with ensuring transportation, security, and food. Casey told WDEL they're still looking for a long-term social services anchor to focus on case management and partner agencies, which could wind up being Friendship House.

While providing a welcoming space during a transition for people, Casey said the ultimate goal will always be to find individuals and families permanent housing.

"The long-term goal from day 1 is: welcome to the Hope Center, let's begin working on the next step, which is getting you into permanent housing," she said. "We want to kind of change the thinking of it--welcome, let's work on your exit strategy."

"We want this to be a place that becomes the next step of their final destination."

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People experiencing homelessness should contact the statewide intake system at 1.833.FIND.BED or email intake@housingalliancede.org.