EXCLUSIVE: Sussex County has highest homeless rate increase, 2 dead over fiscal year

Sussex County has the most rapid increase in homelessness in the state, according to the Delaware Housing Alliance who said over the course of the past fiscal year eight people, including two veterans, died due to homelessness in Delaware.

In an interview with Delaware 105.9's Rob Petree, Christina Showalter, Executive Director for Delaware Housing Alliance, said Sussex County has experienced the most rapid increase of homelessness.

"Sussex County is experiencing the most rapid increase in homelessness. In 2015, 12-percent of the homeless population statewide was in Sussex. In 2016, it was 11-percent and in 2017 we saw a bump up to 13.5-percent," Showalter explained. "We had eight people that we know of died in a state of homelessness, and two of those were in Sussex when they passed away. One was a 54-year-old female and the other was a 53-year-old male. Two of those eight people were veterans, U.S. Armed Forces Veterans, and in a state like ours, with our resources, and our size, it shouldn't happen and doesn't need to happen."

Jim Martin, Director of the ACE Peer Resource Center, has helped thousands through his organization in Georgetown that provides temporary housing for the homeless. He said the increase of homelessness in the county is due to a lack of affordable housing.

"In 2017, we probably helped about 300 people so far, unique individuals not repeating. We see about a hundred a day that drop in between Seaford and Georgetown, and we have about 70 in Georgetown," Martin said. "A lot of people are living in a car and they decided each month 'can I afford a house or a car?,' and in Sussex County they're going to pick the car every time because there's hardly any buses or public transportation. The biggest reason for homelessness is a lack of affordable housing, so the first thing that goes is the home not the car because you have to make like $21 an hour to afford a house in Sussex County, and there's 200,000 people in Sussex County and I'm thinking half are below that income range."

"Affordable housing and availability of units that people at the low end of the income scale can afford is key to preventing homelessness and Sussex County has the lowest average renter wage," explained Showalter. "22-percent of the people in Sussex County are renters, and their average hourly wage is $12.10, and unfortunately the wage needed for a fair market value of a two bedroom apartment in Sussex is $17.60. So as you can see there's a huge gap."

In August, Delaware 105.9's Rob Petree contacted the Delaware State Housing Authority (DSHA) to find out what, if anything, is currently being done to address the affordable housing problem in Sussex County.

In an interview with Delaware 105.9's Rob Petree, Marlena Gibson, Director of Policy and Planning for DSHA, was asked if she considered the following stories to be a representation of an affordable housing crisis in Sussex County, Gibson had the following response:

"I think we here nationally, and I think that's the context for the discussion nationally, is an affordable rental housing crisis. I think across the board nationally estimates are that only about 1-in-4 low-income families who are eligible for rental assistance are able to get it because there's not enough available," Gibson explained. "For those families who don't have some sort of voucher, or are in affordable rental housing that has restricted rent and income, are highly likely to have severe housing needs."

"A lot of our focus is on financing and to help create more affordable rental housing and preserve the affordable rental housing that's already there in the county, since there is a much stronger market on the eastern half of the county, and also making sure that those sites in that area are preserved and aren't at risk of flipping over to a market rate," Gibson explained. "Especially with family homelessness, we recognize that one of the key barriers is the availability of affordable rental housing."

The following mothers claim they've struggled to find a place to live because of the systemic problems that they say makes the entire process of finding affordable housing nearly impossible for low-income families living in Sussex, read more.

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