BELLTOWN, Del. - An old church in the Belltown area near Lewes is one step closer to becoming a 24/7 emergency homeless shelter.
The Sussex County Board of Adjustment voted 3-1 to approve a special use exception so the the non-profit Immanuel Shelter can convert the former John Wesley Church into a shelter. Immanuel Shelter Board President Janet Idema says they are currently purchasing the property and will fundraise before any construction is made. Idema says they plan to renovate the church for community space and build an adjacent building to serve as the shelter itself.
"This shelter is going to be a vetted shelter. It's going to be a safe shelter," she tells WBOC. "We want to make it as positive as possible because we want to be a role model."
But some people who live in the nearby Henlopen Landing Development say they felt blindsided by the board's approval, finding out about the shelter's application late in the process.
"They didn't even get the side of any of the 275 people in the community who live right here," says Henlopen Landing Board President Cristina Lenz. "It would've made for a more seamless transition if it did get approved that there would be support from outlying communities as well in order to make the homeless shelter a success."
Some Henlopen Landing residents say the creation of a homeless shelter will bring down property values as well as put the homeless community at risk of accidents.
"Our major concern here is safety," says Henlopen Landing Board Secretary Jerry Elliott. "But it's not just necessarily the safety of our people here. We're concerned that they're gonna put this shelter here in an extremely, extremely high traffic area."
The property sits between Route 9 and Beaver Dam Road, just north of the Five Points intersection. Idema says that location makes it ideal for a shelter, as the homeless will be walking distance to the new Lewes Transit Center. Idema says she understands why people are concerned, but says their track record in Rehoboth shows how they can operate a successful shelter.
"I think we're going to be great neighbors," she says. "I think if people just give us a chance and take a deep breath and trust--which I know is so hard right now--that they'll find they're pleasantly surprised."
Elliott says they too hope they can work together, but they haven't seen that yet.
"Henlopen Landing is a caring community. We certainly understand that the homelessness is an issue that the community needs to deal with," he tells WBOC. "However, we think there needs to be more conversation and some more, let's say, working together as a team to make something that comes out to be very effective for the homeless as well as the community."