Ocean City Today

Diakonia fills in commission on area homeless situation

By Katie Tabeling | Oct 26, 2017
Photo by: Lisa Capitelli Diakonia leaders believe there are approximately 37 homeless people in Worcester County, and somewhere between eight and 10 people homeless in Ocean City, like this man spotted last weekend.

(Oct. 27, 2017) Diakonia representatives met with the Police Commission on Oct. 13 to discuss what might be done to improve the plight of the homeless in Ocean City.

The reality is that federal funding is increasingly tied to placing homeless people in permanent housing, Diakonia Executive Director Claudia Nagle said.

Diakonia, which is active in the Worcester County Homeless Committee and the Tri-County Alliance for the Homeless, seeks to address issues that led to a person living on the streets.

“Many emergency shelter programs operate …. come in, get a bed, go out the next morning and repeat,” she said. “Once someone comes into our housing programs, they agree to certain behavior contracts and we put them in connection with health care, social services or addiction treatment.”

Last year, 37 additional homeless people were identified in Worcester County, a greater number than was reported in Wicomico and Somerset counties. These include between 8 and 10 homeless persons in Ocean City.

Previous counts identified two or three people, she said, but Diakonia and other organizations in the county have since improved their outreach techniques.

In addition to offering a more accurate accounting of the population, Diakonia now knows who they are and where they live. This allows the nonprofit organization to build a relationship with the homeless community and encourage people to visit its office.

Before a family enters Diakonia’s rapid re-homing program, its members need to agree to enter its support system, which includes health care, skill training and, occasionally, temporary financial assistance.

But Diakonia Board of Directors President Allyson Bernard-Church emphasized that it’s a slow process.

“It takes 30 to 60 days for our outreach people to even talk to the people out on the streets,” she said. “We currently house 35 people with a variety of mental issues and other trauma. It’s not a 30-day program. It takes time.”

Roughly 87 percent of the people who come into the shelter program exit to permanent housing. Nagle said they remain there for six to 12 months, and their current resources limit their ability for follow-ups.

Both women stressed that as federal grants shrink, so too does the pool of local landlords willing to work with Diakonia. Over the years, the nonprofit has easily found housing in the winter, but landlords want those tenants out when summer arrives.

“We are down to three landlords that are willing to work with us, and property managers won’t even talk to us. This grant program is getting worse and worse,” Bernard-Church said. “It’s why we beg for money every year.”

“I had four veterans ready to go into housing in the summer, but no one would take them,” Nagle said. “They all said they could take them in October.”

Diakonia is planning to build a new facility on Route 611 south of the Decatur Diner, but those plans are years away. That building will have 50 units as well as office space.

“The sad thing is once we open it, it’ll be filled the next day, and we’ll still be getting calls,” Bernard-Church said.

Mayor Rick Meehan said he hoped to invite Nagle to speak in front of the full council by budget time.

“Sometimes it’s out of sight, out of mind, and there’s no quick fix. You’re showing us significant planning, and there’s opportunities for buy-in,” he said. “Is there anything we can do to monitor those in Ocean City?”

Diakonia’s outreach efforts have found that the resort’s homeless base identifies as a family, so getting one to break away can be challenging. If one were housed, odds are they would return to the Caroline Street comfort station on the Boardwalk to visit their friends.

Conversely, Diakonia also has seen that if one person comes in off the street, others will follow.

“We had two veterans last year that were homeless, and we were able to start a relationship with one of them. He talked his buddy into services,” Bernard-Church said. “The only way they’d come in is if we got them an apartment together. If your officers think there’s one that seems to communicate better than others, let us know and we can reach out.”

Meehan said that he was interested in assisting any way possible, as he’s received several complaints from visitors.

“People are fearful, and some get antagonized that we can’t do anything. Being homeless is not a crime,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t want to see it. We want to do whatever we can.”

Nagle encouraged law enforcement and the council to play an active role in the Worcester County Homeless Commission.

“It’ll bring additional support to the planning process, so it’s not just the providers but people who are stakeholders,” she said. “In my experience, Ocean City leads. They led the support and planning when Diakonia first started, and we hope you can do the same for what’s best for our community.”

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