Lack of bathrooms an issue for Dover homeless

Code Purple director Pastor Ennio Emmanuel serves a hoot cooked meal to the homeless at the Maranatha Life Changing Church Youth Center in Dover. Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — With the Dover Public Library closed for the foreseeable future due to coronavirus (COVID-19) concerns, the homeless people that walk the streets of the city have no place to go — literally.

That is a huge concern for Ennio Emmanuel, the director for Code Purple Kent County, who does his best to bring comfort and hope for the area’s homeless population, which has been estimated to be more than 300 strong.

There are currently no toilet or shower facilities available in Dover for the majority of the homeless to use.

Mr. Emmanuel said he is continuing to work with the city and any other agencies that might like to get involved.

“The city has been mildly responsive, but there have been many phone calls with different agencies and departments,” he said. “This has been a huge (task since) we also have to take into consideration the emergency help we may need for victims of COVID-19.

“We have seen traction but no final answers as to what to do with the concerns of bathroom and shower accessibility and sheltering for quarantine reasons from the city or state officials.”

Business owners in downtown Dover have complained in recent months about nuisance crimes among the homeless, such as public defection, loitering and panhandling, some even asking for money and food within the businesses.

However, Mr. Emmanuel says the simple fact remains that the homeless are, in fact, people, even though they are often the ones left without a voice in society.

That is why he has been meeting with Dover city leaders and others over recent weeks in trying to get them to bring a couple of portable restrooms and showers — or even a permanent facility if possible — to the downtown area.

“The reason why bathrooms are necessary for the homeless population downtown is because there are over 300 homeless roaming the streets at night in Kent County,” Mr. Emmanuel said. “During the daytime there is little space for them to occupy because the day shelters are limited to 10 people in their spaces.

“We have all tried to work together as nonprofits to fill the gaps, but many large relief service-type organizations are closing their doors for a long period of time. Due to this the homeless population has seen a decrease in food distributions, housing and bathroom/shower use.”

Looking to the city for help

Tina Bradbury, economic and operations manager for the Downtown Dover Partnership (DDP) — whose main purpose is to promote vibrant businesses downtown — said the city of Dover would be the entity to approve portable toilets, adding there are code, safety and sanitary measures that would have to be looked at.

“As for the DDP, we really do not have a stance as this is not a part of our mission,” Mrs. Bradbury said. “We do have (portable toilets) for the farmer’s market in the summer and for some events.”

Mrs. Bradbury said that when the DDP offers port-a-potties, it has to contract with a company for cleaning at an expense budgeted with the market and events; ensure liability insurance is kept by the DDP and the company providing the units; it has to follow city guidelines and must show the units on its special events permit that it files with the city for the market and events and has to keep the units locked when the market and events are not happening.

She added that the DDP “used to leave them open and people would go in the units for activities other then what they are intended for and they also left the units in unsanitary conditions, causing us to have to pay for extra cleaning services.”

City Councilman Fred Neil said there are still numerous details that need to be worked out.

“That is a very valid question,” Mr. Neil said, about whether there should be portable toilets available for the homeless to use. “However, the question leads to other questions for members of the city council, which include, temporary or permanent? Location is key in either case. Finally cost? Who pays for rentals and upkeep?

“I would favor Port-a-Potties on a temporary basis, while so many other locations are not available, providing we can find a good location and with state or federal aid. It would be very unfair to place the financial burden on Dover city taxpayers. The devil is in the details as the homeless population needs access to soap, water and/or sanitizers in a secure setting that can’t be looted.”

City Councilman David Anderson said finding facilities for the homeless is a priority that must be addressed.

“This issue needs to be addressed,” he said. “The public toilets are mostly closed. We are asking for a public health situation. I hope the state steps up.”

New concerns arise with facilities

Anita Wheeler-Bezy, owner of La Baguette Bakery, told members of Dover City Council on March 9 that she is tired of finding human defecation in the flowerpots outside of her business. She said people are afraid to travel downtown to shop and eat.

“We’re slowly becoming an inner city,” she said, adding that people actively do drug deals right outside her bakery windows.

That’s why Todd Stonesifer, owner of The Moving Experience on Loockerman Street, said he feels like he’s being pulled in different directions when it comes to providing bathroom facilities for the homeless.

“I have mixed emotions about it. I believe we need to help as much as we can,” Mr. Stonesifer said. “And I hate to see human waste anywhere in our city, which I have seen often. People have to go. However, I have also seen (restrooms) turn into a place where people go to relieve their addictions, such as drink, shoot up, etc. I have also seen them become a place where other illicit activities take place.

“I think a better solution is to help them find a place that has regular services to fill their needs – food, shelter, facilities. There have been some great ideas floated about such a shelter with access to transportation, social services, probation and parole, but that will take lots of money and a partnership between federal, state, county, municipal and private.”

Mr. Emmanuel said that the coronavirus (COVID-19) could very easily change everything in a heartbeat when it comes to the needs and care of the homeless.

“We are optimistic that we can find answers because we have the space and we know that if one homeless person comes out and says they are positive with the COVID-19, it would be a crisis,” said Mr. Emmanuel. “I would think that these types of issues should be of great concern to our politicians and city officials and our state, but for now it has not been addressed in a way that shows it will bring about a quick solution.

“We need answers for tomorrow, not for next week. Things are getting very rough for the homeless, but I do stay optimistic because I know there are a lot of people who care about this vulnerable population and everyone is working hard to make things happen.”

Mr. Emmanuel thanked Kent County Levy Court Commissioners for their help and consideration into bringing in portable toilets to Dover, Councilman Anderson and other state dignitaries.

Right now, it’s just a waiting game.

“We need answers from our government on how to proceed with this issue and how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on the streets of our city when we can find solutions that are attainable,” Mr. Emmanuel said. “I believe a large tent facility may be the best bet due to the fact that hotels are also closing.

“If we could take over a large gym for the homeless and have military as well as volunteer personnel working, then I believe that we can move forward in peace. Until then, I believe that we are going to be dealing with very upset and hurting people that will be outside during this very dangerous time.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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