GEORGETOWN — The face of humanity won the hearts of Georgetown’s council.
Assuming there are no setbacks, a pallet village that will provide temporary cabin-type housing for the homeless in a hopeful step toward self-sufficiency will be operational this fall.
After hearing support and endorsement that included agencies and several homeless individuals, Georgetown mayor and council Monday night approved Springboard Collaborative’s request for $500,000 from the town’s American Rescue Plan Act funding for the purchase of 40 cabins for the village.
Council’s unanimous vote was 5-0.
“I am grateful to this council. I’m grateful to this town,” said Judson Malone, executive director of The Springboard Collaborative, a nonprofit organization working to ensure housing and health equity for all Delawareans.
Springboard spearheaded the pallet village concept in response to councilwoman Sue Barlow’s insistence that something be done to address Georgetown’s homelessness crisis.
“I have been trying to get some things done for the homeless since I was elected last May. I hear, ‘Oh, we’ve got to do something about the homeless.’ Everybody wants to kick the can down the road,” said Ms. Barlow. “Well, I believe that this is our one chance to actually do something. We don’t have a lot of money, but we do have this federal money that was given to us — $500,000 for 40 pallet shelters. We really need this.”
“The pallet house, I’d like to get on the list for that. But if I can afford it on my own before then, that is what I would do,” said Brian Francisco, among the homeless individuals who spoke at the meeting. “Me being homeless, and all the other homeless people that are out there in the woods, some with disabilities and drug addiction, well we’re still not disposable. We’re all working on it, in our different ways.”
Council’s vote followed an updated presentation by Mr. Malone, and support voiced by several agencies, pastors and individuals.
Council had tabled the request at its April 25 meeting. There was apprehension voiced by some council members about spending such a large amount of money on the pallet project when the town is facing a budget deficit and will be raising taxes.
“I just don’t want to sell the town short,” said councilwoman Angela Townsend. “But I think what touches my heart more than anything was hearing from all of you. A lot of people think I am against homeless, and I am not. I cannot imagine living on the street, not knowing where your next meal is going to come from, (not) having a warm bed, your possessions, showers, just the basic things that we take for granted. These people here tonight changed my mind.”
Those people included Mr. Francisco, among the 29 homeless individuals who have signed a list, seeking more information on what the pallet village initiative is all about. Mr. Francisco is a resident of a tent encampment off Douglas Street.
“We’re the boots on the ground. We are out there in the tent cities every day. We need to do something. The city finally stepped up,” said Lou Hernandez, with Higher Ground Outreach. “I am looking forward to working with the collaborative as the advocate and the person that will be representing these individuals.”
Many who spoke emphasized the greater overall purpose of the village.
“We want to make it very clear that with the pallets it’s not just going to be just a place for someone to sleep. That’s not what’s it’s all about,” said Bernice Edwards, First State Community Action Agency executive director. “You have to have a lot of the wrap-around services, like with LaRed, SUN Behavioral, First State and other social service agencies.”
LaRed Health Center administrator John Russum, also a licensed clinical social worker, echoed her sentiment. “We are going to work hard with Judson to provide services they need, such as medical, mental health, substance abuse,” he said. “We are trying to help those that are in survival mode live a little.”
Takeshia Dozier, chief operations officer of SUN Behavioral Health, said her organization built its facility in Georgetown because “we knew that the people of Sussex County needed help. It is our goal to partner with LaRed and other members of the community to make sure that the community is taken care of.”
There will be no charge for residents of the pallet village.
“The whole point is that they build some sort of assets for when they do get into permanent housing, they have some cash,” said Mr. Malone. “The idea is everything is free, but it’s not like you can live here forever for free. We expect them to work on a housing plan. We expect them to avail themselves of any kind of services they need. We want them to decide what direction they want to go in.”
Council last October approved a two-year initiative as a pilot project brought by Mr. Malone and the Springboard Collaborative.
The $500,000 from the town will go exclusively for the purchase of the 40 pallet cabins. Springboard has been pre-approved for $1 million in state ARPA funds for site improvements and capital costs, Mr. Malone said.
In addition, the collaborative is applying for money from Sussex County, which would go to food services for several years, said Mr. Malone.
Funding is being sought from the Longwood Foundation and banking institutions.
The first two years, the village will be privately funded from banks and foundations. “Already I have started making the case to the state that they need to step forward and fund as well, as in other examples in a lot of other states where the states and municipalities are actually paying for the operation of these villages,” said Mr. Malone.
Cabins in the 63-plus pallet villages in other areas of the United States offer single and double/bunk sleeping options, with showers, communal bathrooms, heating and air conditioning.
Georgetown’s pallet village location will be 411 N. Kimmey Street, through a lease agreement with First State Community Action Agency, which owns the property. It will be fenced, with a single point of entry, 24-hour security and monitoring, offices for services and a community center building.
Plans are for a staff of about 10 people. Springboard also has an office on North Race Street.
Services planned to assist pallet village inhabitants include outpatient health, mental/behavioral health, substance abuse, vocational rehabilitation, education, justice re-entry, employment assistance, legal, life skills and money and case management.
Approval from the Sussex Conservation District and state fire marshal loom as the next major steps, Mr. Malone said.
Councilwoman Christina Diaz-Malone, wife of Judson Malone, prefaced council’s vote with her take on voting on the motion. She said she sought legal advice on the issue of a possible conflict of interest.
“It is not legally wrong for me to vote,” Ms. Diaz-Malone said. “My husband works for zero income. There is no conflict of interest. The only conflict that I would have to think about … is my duty to this town and my moral responsibility to my God. There will be an office where you can go to and hold this man (husband) accountable.”
“This is a pilot project that was unanimously approved by this council last year,” said Mr. Malone. “It is going to be my commitment to you that this project will be successful, and you will be glad that it happened. Thank you.”