All posts by Friendship House

35% increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness in DE – how did this happen?

You have seen the headlines, “Delaware has seen a 35% increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness in the past year.” (Delaware Online article) (DPM article)

How did this happen?

This devastating increase is due to COVID-19 and our inability to understand how deeply the pandemic would affect our lives; from jobs to landlords and accessibility to services.

Let’s step back 14 months. It’s April 2020 and we are now experiencing the worst pandemic this country has ever experienced. Businesses are forced to close and people are told to shelter in place. It was bad. You were there – you remember.

This left millions of people vulnerable and fearful of how they would survive the pandemic physically, financially, and mentally. When in the midst of a crisis, it is very difficult to understand how to make the best decisions for the future. This is why we prepare contingency plans – almost every organization has one so when a crisis hits there are thoughtful protocols in place. Because when in a crisis you don’t get the luxury to stop and think.

Raise your hand if you had such protocols for this level of a pandemic? I didn’t think so. Neither did we at Friendship House. We had to think and act quickly. For us, that meant figuring out how to protect our staff while being available to one of the most vulnerable and often invisible populations: those experiencing homelessness. While we focused on this group, there were plans to help many other Americans such as stimulus checks and increased unemployment benefits. The problem with this plan is even though it supported what we would generally consider the “middle class,” it was insufficient for those living on the margins, on the brink of already losing everything. This specific group of people barely have enough resources to make it through a small crisis. Unfortunately, there was not enough support to help them through something as serious as this pandemic. They suffered exponentially.

Those who live on the margins include those who do not have a savings account to help in crises. They tend to use community resources such as food banks, libraries, and clothing closets to supplement their income. For many, they were the ones considered essential employees during the pandemic. They put their families or themselves at risk of contracting COVID-19. Some were so desperate to work even if their hours and pay shrank. Some people who fall into this category didn’t qualify for unemployment, let alone the additional unemployment benefits. For some they may make too much to qualify for state supplemental financial assistance, but not enough to cover all of their needs.

Many struggled to work as their child care ceased and school-age children were at home. In addition, some landlords were able to work around the eviction moratorium, especially for leases naturally ending. Many contracted COVID-19, lost their jobs, had extended hospital stays, and lost loved ones, too.

Fast forward to today. No wonder homelessness has increased. Those living on the edge of being ok prior to the first state of emergency announced on March 13 are now experiencing homelessness, many for the first time. They have lost their loving and supportive community as everything closed around them.

Sadly, many of them have been families which increases the number of children experiencing homelessness significantly. Families are now living in hotels paid for by the state – some have been there since last spring. They are stuck in a difficult system that is not designed for pandemics.

There’s not enough affordable housing available for these folks and there are long waiting lists for housing voucher programs. Not enough landlords are willing to accept residents who are part of state programs. At the same time, the number of people seeking housing and shelter is continuing to rise. These recent numbers as presented by the Delaware Housing Alliance should be a wake-up call (Housing Alliance press release). We, as a state and nation, were not ready for this kind of pandemic. Quite honestly, I wish we never had to be – this pandemic is heartbreaking, heart-wrenching, and unfair. But it happened, and it could happen again.

We have a tremendous amount of work to do to right the wrongs this pandemic has shown light on. And then we have more work to do in order to prepare ourselves before the next crisis occurs. Homelessness can’t be solved because crises will continue to cause people to lose their loving supportive community. However, we must find a way to lessen the impact when crises hit. There must be more viable options and fewer restrictions to get people back to stability. In addition, we must find ways to support those who are living on the margins: worthy people who are paid less than a livable wage, people who are criminalized because they are poor, people often marginalized because of their socioeconomic status or skin color (if not both).

This kind of work will take a committed, loving, supportive community. It will take collaboration and effort. It will require innovative and forward thinking. It will take courage.

We at Friendship House are committed to being part of the solution. By supporting the minimum wage of $15/hr, fighting against repercussions for people who can not afford court fines or fees, and continuing to fill the gaps where most needed, Friendship House is committed to ensuring every person has a place to call home. I hope you will join us.

Kim Eppehimer
Executive Director

The Story of My Survival

Sharon Lee Crouse is what I was named on April 17, 1975. I grew up in New Jersey with hard-working parents and two older siblings. I had a happy childhood, but as I got older, things started to change. By the age of 12, I started smoking marijuana. Although I was smoking in high school, I made sure I graduated. I had my first child, Kyla, at the age of 19 followed by my second, Ralph, at the age of 23. Soon after the birth of Ralph, I was diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder and severe depression. I began taking prescribed medication, but it only made matters worse. I began isolating myself from my family and locking myself in my bedroom, which led to an even deeper depression.

I began self-medicating with pain pills, prescription stimulants, and cocaine. I spent more time high and in my bedroom than I spent with my family. By the age of 30, my ex-husband introduced me to crystal meth. For the next 15 years, I was in denial about my addiction. I didn’t want any help, even after numerous pleas from my children. My ex-husband played a huge role in my addiction because he was my supplier. I was so deep into my addiction that I didn’t know who I was. I went from having a functional household to having a dysfunctional household with no water, food, or electricity because of my addiction. I even used my son’s phone to set up dates with different men to support my addiction. I became suicidal and was admitted into different mental health facilities. I eventually became homeless.

January 4, 2020, was the last day I used. January 5, 2020, is the day I finally accepted help. I checked myself into a short-term rehab facility in New Jersey. By the end of January, I was transferred to a long-term facility in Wilmington and resided there until August when I graduated from the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center. I moved into Friendship House Transitional Housing on August 31, 2020, and I started as a recovering addict, eager to take back everything I had lost. My journey was not easy, but I had new realistic goals that I set for myself and a strong support system. Shawn and Danielle played a major part in my recovery. They accepted me with open arms and treated me like family. I will forever be grateful. Shawn helped me get a job at the Clothing Bank where I was introduced to Ms. Cheryl and Timeeka; both great women who motivate me even more. Not only did Timeeka train me as an employee, but she also helped me learn to love myself and know my worth. Ms. Cheryl always keeps a positive attitude that I grew to love and she saw my potential long before I did. I believe everything happens for a reason and the time I spent with Shawn and Danielle brought out the best in me.

I, Sharon D’Antonio, am proud to announce that I am 15 months clean as of April 5, 2021!

Friendship House got me thriving instead of surviving! I’m enjoying every minute of it. Sometimes I wonder where I would be without the support of my children and Friendship House and then I realize I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but here to share my story. My children have forgiven me and we have a great relationship. I just recently started thanking myself because without my mistakes, addiction, and struggles, I wouldn’t have met the wonderful people in my life today.

Sharon D’Antonio

How are we expected to move on from here?

It’s been more than 12 months since the COVID-19 pandemic has hit Delaware. More than half a million Americans have died from this terrible virus. Millions more are suffering in other ways. Almost everyone has been affected negatively from COVID-19. This is the greatest and most devastating disaster we have ever experienced.

We have stopped shaking hands. Many of us use our arms to open doors. We continue to protect ourselves by social distancing from others. The world has never felt so unsafe. Half a million families have suffered the painful loss of a loved one, some saying goodbye through virtual means. Millions of people will be living with potential lifelong physical and mental effects from this. Kids and adults alike have been traumatized and lives will never be the same.

How are we expected to move on from here?

I think the answer is the same after any tragedy – with courage, faith, and hope. And it is those three things that have carried us this far.

Friendship House has continually modeled these three attributes: courage, faith, and hope. Our employees found the courage to show up every day at work to continue our life-saving and life-changing programs. Our employees showed faith when they had to work from home knowing they were doing what was best for the company, keeping themselves safe while serving our community. And we all kept hope in a better tomorrow.

We saw these three attributes in those we serve. Most recently we saw courage in the 73 people who agreed to move into the NCC Hope Center when we announced we could not offer Code Purple. These 73 individuals all lived on the streets in Wilmington, Newark or Middletown. Although frequently uncomfortable, denied respect, and wanting of so many things – they had created a system for themselves while living houseless. During the pandemic, it was made all that more difficult. When we asked them to move to the Hope Center, somewhere new and out of their comfort zone, they had the courage to say yes.

There was faith in those that came to our Empowerment Centers every day for coffee and food. They never stopped coming to us, even when we moved how, when or where we offered these services. They had faith we would be there for them. And because of their faith, we showed up every day, too.

We witnessed hope, alongside fear and anxiety, in every resident of our Transitional Housing program. They hold close to their heart this is the moment they will find a path forward. It is critical in that moment of vulnerableness we see in them the best version of themselves, and reflect that vision back.

There is so much hope on the horizon – hope enough people will be vaccinated we can start being together like we once were. Hope the vaccinations will be enough against the variants. Hope the economy will rebound. Hope we are doing enough.

In order to believe in that hope, we must have faith. Faith the scientists created strong vaccinations. Faith our community will get the vaccinations safely. Faith our financial decisions are the right ones for our economy. Faith it will be OK as long as we stay true to ourselves.

And then we must have courage. Courage to do the hard thing – courage to do the right thing. Courage to face the world – with or without a mask – and say “I am here and I am ready, Lord, to show up and be your partner in making it OK.”

This time of year is a time of transformation; a time for death to become life. Whether you believe in Easter or just the beauty of Spring, renewal and rebirth are all around us. It couldn’t be at a better time as we turn the corner to the end of this pandemic. We must remember the rainbow is always there after a storm, whether we can see it or not.

Together, as one loving and supportive community, I believe we can dig deep and find enough courage, faith and hope to live fully and intentionally in spite of this pandemic. I pray we all feel the peace and love of God as we journey to find our way home.

Kim Eppehimer
Executive Director

Annual Garden Fundraiser

Support our Transitional Housing program by honoring a special person in your life!

Over 30 years ago, our dear friend Jane Ashford began the Mother’s Day Garden fundraiser. This fundraiser is an opportunity for our loving, supportive community to celebrate someone in their life by making a donation to our Transitional Housing program. We plant bulbs and flowers in our gardens around Mother’s Day each year with funds from this fundraiser. These gardens have become a place of sanctuary, rest, prayer, and beauty for our residents.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant effect our community. Many have lost loved ones, jobs, and their sense of stability. Our Transitional Housing program offers a holistic approach to one’s journey during recovery after significant strife where they found themselves without a loving, supportive community. Last spring, the pandemic brought new hardship for our residents such as difficulty retaining income, working in stressful frontline jobs, and relying on virtual recovery programs. While many were able to gain jobs in grocery stores, recovery became even more difficult.

Please consider a donation to this life-saving, life-changing program, which has helped over 2,000 men and women to date. Honor a loved one in your life with a monetary donation to support the future of this program. We will send a beautiful floral card to that special person with your personal message acknowledging your donation (no dollar amount is listed).

A donation can be made in honor of anyone – a family member on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, a graduate, as a birthday present, or to someone special in your life.

Donate Now!

Celeste Merritt’s Story

Citibank employee, Celeste Merritt, joined Friendship House for 4 weeks in March as a volunteer through her company’s #givingback program. After signing out of her day job, she was able to dedicate 40 hours a week to us while still receiving her paycheck. She split her time between the Hope Center and Clothing Bank. Celeste shares her story below on how her path led her to volunteer with us. She remarks on her hardship, triumphs and desire to give back. Celeste has been a remarkable asset to the FH family and we thank her for her dedication to our mission.

The Path I Have Chosen
By Celeste Merritt

You can choose your own path. The world around you may be different than what you want it to be. You can make the change.

I grew up poor, “on the wrong side of the tracks” in rural Louisiana. I am a product of the system. We relied on food stamps and moved many times because my parents couldn’t pay the rent. I went to eleven different schools before I graduated high school, three in my fifth-grade year! I was never physically abused, but I saw abuse around me and was sympathetic to the victims. My mother said I’ve always rooted for the underdog.
When I was fifteen, I told my mother that I wanted to go to college to have a better life, but she didn’t have the money to send me. Neither she nor my father ever went to college, but I could see that education would get me out of the life we were living.

Fortunately for me, I was intelligent and made good grades. I was on honor roll and was in the National Honor Society. In eleventh grade, I was taking a bookkeeping class and was doing a project on running a business. I remember sitting on my bed, crying my eyes out because I couldn’t reconcile the books by $0.03. It was my calling then to find out where those three pennies were and that is when I decided to become an accountant.
It was also in eleventh grade that I had a revelation about having a career. I was sitting in my English class and the girl in front of me was pregnant and married. Waiting on the bell to ring one day, we were talking with our teacher, Mrs. Burke. Mrs. Burke asked the girl what she expected to do in her life. The girl said, “be married.” Mrs. Burke turned around, looked at her and told her that she had been married, but her husband died. She said she didn’t go to college until she was in her 40’s, as a widow, to get over her grief and learn how to support herself. I decided then that I wasn’t going to rely on anyone, especially a man, to get the things I wanted in life.

However, I did meet a boy in high school and ended up getting married when I was nineteen. My mother was happy I was getting married and didn’t encourage me to attend college first. I didn’t let my marriage divert me from getting an education though. I started taking college classes two weeks after I graduated from high school. I was able to get a Pell Grant and tested out of some of the general education courses. The boy I married was in the Air Force, so I continued to move around a lot. It took me seven years and five colleges to get my undergrad degree, but I never wavered from my decision to be an accountant. I started taking graduate courses right away and also passed the certified public accountant exam. By this point, I had started my career in public accounting and frankly was just burned out from so much school. While I am about halfway through my master’s degree, I have yet to pick it back up but the desire is starting to rekindle itself.

I started working at twelve as a babysitter and at fifteen, went to work at a daycare center, working in the after school and summer programs. I worked full time all through college so I wouldn’t have to take out any student loans. After graduation, I finally started my professional career in public accounting at Price Waterhouse. I worked in the tax department, doing corporate tax returns, and it was about this time that my marriage fell apart. Thankfully, we had not had children, so we went our separate ways with no strings attached. Once I divorced, I transferred to the research and development tax credit group that was just getting started. This position allowed me to travel but was based out of San Jose, California at the time. This experience led me to go to a client, Cisco Systems. While there, I transferred to the treasury department because they were opening an office in Reno, Nevada. There, I gained the experience of treasury accounting, booking entries for investments when they went public. When the Silicon Valley bubble burst in the early 2000’s, I found myself without a job and decided to take some time to determine what it was that I wanted to do with my life. After networking with someone in the staffing industry, she recommended me for a three-week assignment at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Fernley, Nevada. That three weeks turned into an analyst position, with a promotion to controller and a move to Delaware. I was the East Coast controller for Amazon at a time when there were only five distribution centers in the entire country! That position is where I gained my operations finance experience, as well as learning to manage a team of people.

About a year and a half after moving to Delaware, I remarried and we had our first daughter. As intense as Amazon was, I didn’t want to miss her first Christmas. With my operations finance background and a referral from a former peer controller, I landed a role at Bank of America as the Fraud Finance Manager. Not only was I coming into a new industry, but a month into the job, the Fraud Center of Excellence was formed, so I was learning two lines of business within the banking world. I was there for over eight years before moving to Citibank to be the Global Fraud Reporting Manager, which is the role I continue in today.

When it comes to volunteering, I think about the journey I have taken over the course of my life. As a young kid, I was the recipient of a giving program called “Shop with a Cop”. I remember early on, when I was about six or seven, my sister, one of my brothers, and I rode a bus with police officers to the local Kmart to buy Christmas presents for our parents and other siblings. I remember picking out a pair of house shoes for my mother. When I was in my first marriage as an Air Force wife, I volunteered to prepare tax returns for service members. When I was at Price Waterhouse, I got involved in recruiting to try to help candidates decide what they wanted to do in their own careers. One year at Thanksgiving, my roommate and I volunteered with a minority sorority to set up dinner for the elderly. Working at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Fernley, I realized not all of the area managers and process assistants had
the spreadsheet skills needed to do the reports they distributed, so I taught Excel classes to help them improve their skills.

However, it was really at Bank of America that I truly became involved in giving back. I joined the Women’s Leadership Network where I started coaching and mentoring my peers and junior associates. That program got me involved with Girls on the Run where I served on the racing committee for a couple of years. By this time, my two daughters were attending a Title I elementary school where I was the treasurer of the PTA. They progressed to the Title I middle school in our area and I still serve as the PTA treasurer there. Along the way, they started swimming for the local YMCA, so I joined the Parent Advisory Council and managed the swim team snack bar. We joined our local pool and I’ve been the social coordinator there for the past several years.

Through all of this, Citibank offered a Volunteer Day for me to take a day and give back to my community. I normally used it to chaperone field trips, so still benefiting my family, but my community too. And then this year, Citibank started the Giving Back Leave Program where I have the opportunity to leave my ‘day job’ and work in my community on a full-time basis for up to four consecutive weeks. I chose Friendship House because I have seen firsthand, some of the challenges they are helping others to overcome. If I can make a difference in one person’s life, it will be for the good!

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