(Dialog freelance correspondent Michael Short and his wife, Susan, volunteer for the Code Purple program at their parish, St. Jude in Lewes, Del.).
LEWES — The homeless men come through the door every night, bundled against the biting wind and harsh winter cold.
Some walk. Some ride bicycles. A few have a car, but most come on the DART (Delaware Authority for Regional Transit) bus transportation arranged by the state.
Up to 14 homeless men a night now take shelter at St. Jude the Apostle Catholic Church’s Parish Life Center (PLC) in Lewes, a Delaware beach town. They show up about 8:45 p.m., get a hot snack and a bottle of water, gather their bedding and make up a folding cot for the night. Most charge their phone or read before going to sleep.
Lights go out at 10 p.m. and they arise early, in time to leave the PLC by 7 a.m. to take the same bus back to Rehoboth Beach and a Community Resource Center (CRC) facility. It is part of Code Purple, Sussex County, operated by Love in the Name of Christ (Love Inc.) of Delmarva, which describes itself as providing emergency nighttime shelter for homeless neighbors during the winter months.
St. Jude opened its shelter Dec. 1, among a group of six churches in the region, and it will close in mid-March. It’s for men only and there’s a limit of 14 guests set by the fire marshal. Volunteers check-in the homeless, greeting them, asking them about their day and signing them in. They must sign a code of conduct and no alcohol or drugs are allowed.
Anyone who makes trouble is informed he is no longer welcome.
More volunteers show up to help the men as they make their way out in the morning. The men roll up the bedding, gather their possessions and get a to-go bag with bottled water, crackers, protein bars and dried fruit. Volunteers spend the night with them in the PLC. Other volunteers drive the shuttle bus.
It’s been nearly flawless, according to organizers. There’s video surveillance in the PLC and the state police will sometimes stop by to check on things. Help is never more than a phone call away, but trouble comes rarely, if ever. “No one has been disruptive at all,” said site manager Mike Agnew.
The first thing you notice is that stereotypes fall away like autumn leaves in a brisk wind. Full disclosure, my wife and I recently volunteered with the intake portion where men sign in for the evening.
We were greeted with smiles, firm handshakes and good conversation. Many of the men have jobs, although having a job and being able to afford a home in the beach area, with its sky-high housing costs, can be very different things. In the shadow of million-dollar homes, some have little but the clothes on their back.
Some of them are articulate and well-read.
One is a bartender. Another plays guitar. Another works in a nearby fast-food restaurant, washing dishes and making sandwiches. Some work in poultry plants. One is about to begin full-time work as a custodian.
Many have health issues. Living on the streets can take a heavy toll on both body and soul.
One man sang to us. Others helped hold her chair while my wife, who uses a walker, stood.
The stereotypes fell away with remarkable speed.
The next morning, my wife turned to me and said, “I’m seeing people differently this morning.”
St. Jude’s decision to join the Code Purple program comes against a backdrop of rising homelessness. Homelessness in Delaware has doubled since 2020, with almost all the increase coming in Kent and Sussex counties, the southern and less-populated part of the state. That means there are now an estimated 2,300 homeless men, women and children in Delaware, according to statistics provided by “The Point in Time Count” in 2022, an attempt to count the homeless each year.
Agnew, a former theology teacher with the soul of a poet, has taken the point in running the local program.
“It really isn’t volunteering. You’re getting as much from it as they are,” he said. “The idea is to raise self-esteem and dignity … If they’re going to climb out of this, you have to start by making them realize their self-worth.”
Agnew said COVID has been a factor in the increase. A bigger factor, he believes has been the difficulty of finding affordable housing in the beach region. As usual, everyone has a different story. Medical bills, lost jobs, health issues, lost insurance, drug or alcohol issues might all be reasons.
The reason matters little when the guests arrive. They are called guests, a deliberate word choice to make people feel welcome and cared for. “I think everyone has a different reason for being here … It’s a matter of finding a way to climb out of it,” he said.
“Very often we in our rush to get from place to place we don’t see the invisible souls in our community seeking food, warmth, and peace of mind but there is little doubt they are present. Since 2020 the number of homeless increased more than 100 percent in Sussex County alone. The reasons vary, certainly COVID has had an impact, but the lack of affordable housing has had by far the greatest impact,” Agnew wrote in a message to partners.
“A recent study across the U.S. showed that at the extremely low-income level there are 11 million families competing for four million affordable homes. The study also provided the demographic details supporting the population of people without shelter and noted that more than 40% are disabled or senior citizens while the balance is either in school or in the labor force,” he said.
Agnew is a humble man, and he is quick to give credit to Father Brian Lewis, the St. Jude pastor. Father Lewis quickly warmed to the idea and gave his approval for it to begin. It didn’t take a lot to convince Father Lewis that helping the homeless is a chance to live the Gospel and his almost infectious joy sold the idea to the parish.
He gave an impassioned homily before Halloween to announce the program and received an ovation at the end of that homily. He spoke of Halloween costumes and his belief that Christ often comes to us in the disguise of others, perhaps as a little child or a loved one. Father Lewis said that perhaps he also comes in the disguise of the poor, the homeless and the hungry. “We need to look into our heart and see Jesus in the disguise of these men,” he said.
He spoke of Matthew when Jesus separates the sheep from the goats and tells the sheep, “When I was hungry, you gave me to eat. When I was thirsty, you gave me to drink. A stranger and you welcomed me. Whatsoever you did for the least of my brothers, you did for me.”
“He walks still among us in disguise,” Father Lewis said. “What is he saying? He is saying that St. Jude, this winter, I will stay at your house.”
Lewis said he has been astounded at the generous response of parishioners and community members. Calls for bottled water, snacks and microwaveable meals soon produced a pile of food and water that threatened to overwhelm parish facilities.
“That mountain of donations will dwarf me. It’s that much!” Father Lewis said.
Agnew had to build more shelves to hold all the donations.
The initial training session for volunteers attracted nearly 100 people.
“God Himself chose to come into this world a poor babe. On the coldest winter’s night, Joseph and Mary sought shelter, and time and again, it was denied them,” Father Lewis said in an Oct. 31 news release announcing the emergency shelter. “No one would open their door for them. How often this is repeated today, when Christ in his most distressed disguise of the poor knocks on the door of a human heart and is not welcomed. Truly, he has said, birds of the air have nests and foxes have dens, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head. We cannot be the ones to deny him some place to lay his head. We have been given many blessings by God and consequently have been given the responsibility to share those blessings with those in need. It is our joy to open wide our hearts and our doors to our brothers in Christ this winter.”
Code Purple’s mission is to offer shelter to those with no home by utilizing church sanctuaries, time, talent, and support to save lives during cold weather in Sussex County and to offer hope for a future to our struggling neighbors. Code Purple currently operates five other emergency shelters throughout Sussex County.
Love Inc. also offers a clothing pantry, to-go meals, budgeting help, mentoring and other services. Their mission is “to mobilize local churches to transform lives and communities in the name of Christ.”
Miguel Alban, executive director of Love INC, said in the same news release that “we are grateful for St. Jude. Love INC was not sure if Code Purple was going to have a location site on this side of the county but thanks to Father Lewis and church leadership their doors will be open for the most vulnerable this winter season.”
The former Troop 7 police barracks on Route 1 was used as a Code Purple shelter last year, but Agnew said the building has deteriorated and black mold and rodents make it unsuitable.
“If you have already spent the night with our guests then you know the secret to this ministry, it is often revealed not during the night but sometime after sunrise, maybe on your way home after you have sent your guests back into the cold or maybe later in the day you reach this epiphany about the exchange of love that occurred the night before,” said Agnew.
“Your adventure into this unknown realm allowed you to meet the face of Christ. You were able to feed, clothe and offer him a warm and safe shelter allowing him to recover a bit and prepare for the world that will forsake him again. Throughout the experience you were always safe in the controlled environment, and you were able, although you may have doubted your own ability, to rejuvenate him physically, emotionally, and spiritually providing a renewed hope in the new day to come,” Agnew said.
“St. Francis of Assisi is often quoted as saying ‘“Preach the Gospel at all times and if necessary, use words,”‘ Agnew said. “Homelessness in not a crime, not a reason to be incarcerated, not a blight on our community, but an opportunity given too many of us to preach the Gospel in the front line. Code Purple is a two-way charity, offering our brothers without shelter, food, shelter, and rest from the world that has abandoned them, but it also offers the men and women with shelters, those that are ready to step outside their comfort zone an opportunity to meet the risen Christ face to face, unimpeded by the rush of the world. It’s at that moment of meeting Our Lord that we receive the uncreated grace of wisdom to treasure momentarily and then to share.”
“I believe it pleases our Blessed Mother greatly that we are able to see her son in his most distressed disguise of the homeless, outcast, and poor,” Father Lewis said.
“God called me to it,” Agnew said. “I got into this because I felt called to the ministry.”
There are currently enough food and water donations for the program, but there is still a need for volunteers. The need for overnight volunteers, who must be men, is the greatest. There is also a need for donations and volunteers at other Code Purple sites.
For information, please contact: Miguel Alban of LOVE INC. at (302) 629-7050 or www.loveincofmiddelmarva.org/code-purple or Mike Agnew at 215-290-2689 or codepurple@ stjudelewes.org