Dover mayor’s panel seeks solutions to homelessness

Robin Christiansen

DOVER — Dover Mayor Robin R. Christiansen figures the more minds he has involved in trying to figure out how to solve the homeless issue in the city, the more possible solutions he will get.

That’s why he decided to put together a 13-member Blue Ribbon Panel on Homelessness near the end of last year to try to find those elusive answers.

Mayor Christiansen said he hopes the template that he and his team used in finding permanent housing for 89 homeless veterans over the past year-and-a-half in Dover is one that will work equally as well in securing homes for the civilian population who are homeless.

“The goal of this Blue Ribbon commission will be to determine who the homeless are,” he said. “Just as in the Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness we identified veterans by name. We will identify the homeless by name, where they are from and how did they become homeless in their situation?

“The commission will be asked to determine how as a community we can do better, including combined efforts to end the issue of chronic homelessness such as implementing the template established by the Mayor’s Challenge to end chronic homelessness amongst veterans and veterans’ families.”

A pair of weary homeless men try to get some rest on Feb. 25 near the fountain in front of Dover’s City Hall. Jeanine Kleimo, of Dover Interfaith Mission Shelter, said many homeless sleep during the day because they are up all night trying to stay safe. (Submitted photo/Mary Elizabeth Phillips)

That template involved a working group that included state and federal agencies, nonprofit providers and veterans service agencies that developed a plan to address the problem.

Mayor Christiansen said it is all a matter of getting different agencies to work in concert with one another to achieve a greater goal. He doesn’t see why the plan that worked to avert veterans’ homelessness can’t also work to prevent the same for civilians.

“(We need) a plan which puts in place rapid, permanent housing, not temporary housing, and contact with those who are homeless with the appropriate agencies — both state and federal — to provide services which are not part of the city’s mission,” the mayor said.

Mayor Christiansen’s Blue Ribbon panel is a diverse one that includes: Chairman Dr. Jerome Abrams (Dover Interfaith Mission for Housing), Carla Benson-Green (Delaware Family Services Division), Brian Lewis (Dover City Council), Dr. Dan Shelton (Capital School District) and Rebecca Martin (Code Purple Kent County).

Joining them on the panel are: Chris Cooper (Habitat for Humanity), the Rev. Elmer Davis Jr. (Whatcoat United Methodist Church), Margie Cyr (Dover library), Maj. William Farley (Delaware Veterans Commission), Allan Angel (Kent County Levy Court), Greg Bunkley (Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance), Cathi Kopera (Tiny Homes) and Jeanine Kleimo (Interfaith Mission).

The Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Homelessness has met three times so far, the last time on Wednesday at City Hall.

Its members realize that the issue of homelessness is a broad one and isn’t a “one size fits all” kind of problem.

“I think the more we get into this, the more we’re finding out how multi-faceted it is,” Dr. Abrams said. “I think we’re making an effort to try to get our hands around the entire problem as comprehensively as we can and then start to focus and come up with some kind of consensus.

“The purpose of the panel is to provide a report to the Dover City Council on the state of homelessness in Dover and future directions. The mayor has asked for a report from the panel within 60 days. I’m not sure we can quite make that, but it’s not going to go on forever. We’re making progress.”

The panel brings in speakers from different organizations involved in the homeless issue to each of its meetings and then asks that representative questions as to how their services can be used to help fight homelessness in Dover.

Rachel Stucker, the acting executive director of the state’s Homeless Planning Council, spoke at Wednesday’s meeting and talked about several different subjects, including various funds available to secure housing, programs to house the homeless and other issues.

Ms. Stucker was impressed at the group Mayor Christiansen has put together.

“As far as I understand, this is the first time that a city or a town has taken the initiative to form a commission to really try to figure out how to fix the issue in their community for everyone,” she said. “It’s really, really exciting.”

Mr. Bunkley said it’s hard to put a face on the homeless because anybody can wind up facing their circumstances.

“People have a misperception,” Mr. Bunkley said. “Most people tend to think that people who are homeless are drug addicts and alcoholics.

“I know a gentleman who worked for an apartment complex that got bought out by someone in New York. They had five maintenance people and one of the perks of being a maintenance person was you got a free apartment because you’re on call.

“The new management company said, ‘Hey, instead of having five (maintenance people) we’re going to have three. Since he was one of the last two that were hired he was given a week to move out … so right then, he was homeless.”

Mary Elizabeth Phillips, who has lived in Dover since 1966, attended Wednesday’s meeting out of curiosity because of a scene she recently witnessed in front of City Hall just more than a week ago — two homeless people sleeping on benches at 3 p.m.

Ms. Phillips said she didn’t know Dover had a homeless issue until that day and she was interested in what the panel was doing to help.

“Most people who stop and sit, just sit,” said Ms. Phillips, a photographer. “But they were slumped over and one of them actually ended up lying down on the bench. My first reaction was ‘What can we do for these people?’

“It was shocking to me because I’ve lived in this community for 50 years and I’ve never seen that before.”

The Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Homelessness is working on the issue in hopes that Ms. Phillips and other Dover residents will not have to see that kind of scene again.

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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