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Women on a Mission: Immanuel Shelter Supports Rehoboth’s Homeless Community

Founders of Immanual Shelter

Janet Idema and De Raynes hang life saving care packages at the top of Rehoboth Avenue (Photo by Shlley Couch)

Founders of Immanual Shelter

Janet Idema and De Raynes hang life saving care packages at the top of Rehoboth Avenue (Photo by Shlley Couch)

When temperatures start dropping and the snow is falling down, the natural reaction is to snuggle up with blankets in the comfort and safety of home. For some, that is not an option. There is no blanket to cozy up in. There is no shelter to protect them from the freezing temperatures. There is no comfort and no safe place to turn. The board of Immanuel Shelter Inc. does not take these facts lightly.

From the beginning
Since Immanuel Shelter Inc.’s President Janet Idema and Vice President De Raynes originally opened their doors in 2010, the organization has helped hundreds of the homeless population in Eastern Sussex County. The shelter is located at 37439 Oyster House Road, Rehoboth Beach, DE 19971. As a code purple shelter, during November – April, they are open seven nights a week at 4:30 p.m. until 7:30 a.m. the next day. The Immanuel Shelter Inc. provides beds, showers, toiletries, and meals to those that need it the most. Individuals receive services without prejudice. The shelter vows to not discriminate based on sex, sexual orientation, race, religion, physical and/or mental special needs, or age as long as 18 years or older. Immanuel Shelter Inc. is non-denominational. The shelter can house 25-30 guests per night and works hard to find alternate housing for the surplus. In September of 2015, Immanuel Shelter Inc. officially became a 501(3)(c) non-profit organization. The board of directors have been in contract to purchase a permanent year round shelter, but recently learned the request for a special exception use has been denied.

In the code purple shelter, Idema and her team provide a friendly compassion for all of the guests they serve. Idema uses her knowledge from being a psychiatric clinical nurse specialist to give direction. She provides the team with skills and tools for working with the population.

“I have an understanding of the barriers that keep people homeless. Some are battling mental illness or have alcohol or substance abuse,” says Idema. “There are those that are situationally homeless due to a death in the family or the strain of living pay to paycheck.”

The Immanuel Shelter Inc. is one of the only shelters of its kind in the area though the demand for more resources in Sussex County is high. People in the area have seasonal jobs that pay minimum wage. The cost of living simply cannot be supported on a minimum wage salary. They need support year round, and not just for the winter months.

Challenges the homeless population face
The Immanuel Shelter Inc. faces unique challenges in the community. Idema sheds light on the issue: “People feel uncomfortable looking at people different than them. Whether gay, lesbian, transgender, special needs or homeless, people don’t see what they don’t want to see.”

The code purple shelters provide much needed relief to the population in the winter months but year round the obstacles still persist. “That is why it’s important to give them a voice. The problems don’t go away, people hide better,” explains Idema. This is why organizations such as the Immanuel Shelter Inc. are so detrimental. They give a safe place for people to go and rest without worrying about judgement or their safety being threatened. The code purple shelters are helpful but the residents in Sussex County need a more permanent solution.

The homeless community encounters even more scrutiny. “People have preconceived ideas and prejudices. They associate homeless with danger. People think the homeless deserve help but they are not to be trusted. They think that they deserve shelter but not in my backyard. They believe the homeless don’t have homes because they don’t want to work,” says Idema.

She stresses that this is not the case. Many of the homeless “have mental illness. They lack family structure and support. They cannot access the system in the same way that others can.” This creates a downward spiral.

Causes of homelessness
“Things spin out of control. They are scrapping to get by. Scrapping to find a meal turns into scrapping to find a place to sleep at night,” says Idema. “People need an address for mail, for taxes, to get and renew their license, to get medical care. Life quickly spins out of control.”

One woman confided in Idema saying, “I drink because… you try to sleep under a bridge at night. I drink to keep myself sane and fall asleep on the floor exposed and vulnerable at night.” When the basic human needs of food and shelter are taken away, it’s hard to focus on anything else.

Janet IdemaAffecting change
The board of directors at the Immanuel Shelter Inc. have been making strides toward change. People in the community are starting to pay attention. People are waking up and noticing. Immanuel Shelter Inc. is here and making a difference. People are getting their lives back together; getting sober, getting work, and families are back together.

The Immanuel Shelter Inc. relies heavily on support from the community. Monetary donations are always appreciated as it costs about $25 a night to house one guest. Donations to their capital campaign will help them with securing the contract for a new building and making all the necessary updates to run permanently. The shelter has just shy of 100 volunteers. Once a month for three hours they help with organizing materials, intake services, food preparation or serving, stocking up and cleaning the shelter. Volunteers also help with grant writing and tracking, picking up supply donations and more.

Recognizing the communities’ needs outside of the shelter, volunteers have created a wall outside the local YMCA. During winter months Chase the Chill is filled with scarves, gloves, and hats for anyone feeling cold. For summer Beat the Heat provides visors, sunblock, and water bottles. People can feel free to take what is needed.

Goals for the future
The work is never done. The Immanuel Shelter Inc. has big goals for itself and the community. “I would like to see more emergency shelters in the community, more code purple shelters with participation from churches and veterans.” Immanuel Shelter Inc. can only house 25 – 30 individuals but have to turn away countless more. The staff works to try and find alternative places for the overflow but there are not enough resources in the area. Idema also hopes to create a workforce. “We want to help people get back to work, train them and provide transportation and even transitional housing for those that need help getting back on their feet.”

The board of directors at the Immanuel Shelter Inc. have been working tirelessly to bring a permanent year round shelter to the community. They had been in contract to purchase a house on Hebron Road to provide a stable residence for up to 20 guests at a time. The board had filed a special exception land use waiver to purchase the house.

Set backs
In a 4-1 vote on January 25, 2016 the Sussex County Board of Adjustment denied a special-use exception for the shelter to open on Hebron Road. A petition was filed with 68 signatures from residents in the area opposed to the shelter.

The main concern of the residents in the historically black neighborhood being that a homeless shelter would adversely affect property value or have a detrimental impact on West Side New Beginnings, a facility that offers children’s programs on the same street as the proposed building for the new shelter. The worry discussed was the shelter would lead to parents being scared to let children walk to and from the community center. Other residents fear that putting the shelter there would take back progress the neighborhood has made against the crime and drug dealing in the area.

The lone vote in favor of the application was cast by Board member John Mills, who stated, “…the opposition was more emotional than factual”. All concerns have been mitigated by the Immanuel Shelter Inc. An accessor was brought in, stating that the property values of adjacent properties would not be affected. Proper police vetting and background checks would be conducted to ensure the safety of children in the neighborhood. Idema, the Vice President of the Immanuel Shelter’s board had mixed feelings about the denial, “I’m saddened by the world not seeing homeless people. As long as they are a thing; homeless group, and not a face; Tommy or Pam, they are not seen as needing love and support.”

What comes next?
The board of the Immanuel Shelter Inc. will meet later this month to make a plan moving forward. The board must decide if an appeal on the decision made by the Board of Adjustment will be brought to the Superior Court in Delaware. Another option is to drop out and seek out another property in a different neighborhood. The main focus of the board is to establish, “the best opportunity for the homeless community, where they will be welcomed.”

In the meantime, the code purple shelter will continue to be open to residents in Sussex County who rely on the support. Immanuel Shelter will continue to offer protection from the harsh, sometimes life-threatening winter elements. Men, women and children accompanied by one or both parents who are experiencing homelessness in the Sussex County are will continued to be sheltered as funds permit.

Come and support the Immanuel Shelter Inc. in their upcoming events. Drag Yourself to B*tchy Bingo every 2nd Wednesday of the month is hosted at Mariachi Restaurant. The fundraiser night includes reduced dinner and drink prices and drama drag queens Anna Rexia and Janell Collins. On January 27, locals are invited to eat at Touch of Italy restaurant as they donate a percentage of their proceeds from lunch and dinner to Immanuel Shelter Inc.

For more information about the Immanuel Shelter Inc. or to find out how you can donate or volunteer please visit their website at www.immanuelshelter.org.