WOC Homeless Shelter On Life Support

SNOW HILL – Diakonia homeless shelter in West Ocean City will close its doors in April if Worcester County cannot come up with the cash to keep the shelter open.

“We are just now flat out of cash,” said Roy Frick, Treasurer and Vice President of the Diakonia Board. “Everything is going up. Utilities have gone up. Staffing costs have gone up. Insurance costs have gone up. Every time I get a bill it’s gone up.”

The non-profit organization needs $65,000 from the County Commissioners to keep going until the new fiscal year in July, or the shelter will have to close its doors in four to six weeks.

Diakonia provides transitional housing to help residents work their way back into the community after a financial hardship. In addition to food and shelter, Diakonia offers counseling and emotional assistance to those in need.

“I come before you to ask your support,” said Diakonia Executive Director Claudia Nagle. “I’m talking about the additional assistance we need as an organization to make it through ‘til July.”

Diakonia has in the past counted on help from the community, receiving large, timely cash gifts and bequests to help the shelter over funding gaps.

“There have been other times in the recent past when we have seen shortfalls in cash and things have come through like a $100,000 bequest,” Nagle said later.

But the community has not been able to make up the lack this time, according to Frick.

“It’s not coming in,” Frick said. “The community with the economy cannot step up to the plate.”

Nagle told the commissioners, “We desperately need some additional assistance to fill that gap. We can’t operate on what ifs.”

Commissioner Bud Church questioned Diakonia’s staffing costs, which are 68 percent of the budget.

Diakonia has only four full-time employees, with 10 part-time and a host of volunteers. Diakonia needs staff onsite 24 hours a day, every day. Many guests have significant issues and need supervision.

“What we’re talking about is not a standard Monday-to-Friday organization,” said Nagle. “We operate at most with two people on each shift.”

Frick said the shelter operates on a thin budget.

“We have absolutely no fat,” Frick, an accountant, said. “It’s like peanut butter. You can only spread it so far.”

Nagle said, “We have a plan in place. We have to have funding to get us through so we don’t have to come back here again.”

If the County Commissioners had designated more than $20,000 for Diakonia last year, which was far less than the requested $100,000, the shelter would not be in this position, said Frick.

“Had we gotten budgetwise what we requested a year ago we wouldn’t be here today,” Frick said.

Diakonia’s 2007 revenues, less than $400,000, come from several sources, with 43 percent from public support, including the United Way, churches, foundations and area citizens. Another 40 percent comes from state grants. Local municipal governments contribute 11 percent. Ocean City gives 4 percent. Worcester County contributes 7 percent.

Nagle praised the community for support, estimating that the shelter receives between $200,000 and $300,000 worth of in-kind services from the public, like food, clothing, and volunteer hours.

The shelter provides more than meals and a place to sleep, helping guests connect to government services, dealing with addictions, offering counseling on employment and finances, and requiring guests to find work and save money.

No other organization on the lower Eastern Shore offers anything like Diakonia’s services.

“Emotionally, all of us are with you,” said Commissioner Judy Boggs. “I don’t know what questions to ask. We just got this whole packet of information including financial information today … I personally could not make a decision today.”

“This really isn’t a surprise to me they’re back here asking for this,” said Commissioner Bobby Cowger.

If the county does not help, and Diakonia shuts down for several months, it could be very difficult to get the effort going again, he said.

“I know money’s tight but the county’s always been able to step up to the plate when somebody’s in need,” said Cowger.

The commissioners need to help, said Commissioner Louise Gulyas.

“This is helping parents and children. That’s what it’s all about. They’re our people. They’re Worcester County people,” Gulyas said.

Commissioner Linda Busick said the financial commitment is an investment for the county.

“Every dollar invested in Diakonia is a dollar saved in housing soemone in the Worcester County Jail,” said Busick.

Church said he plans to help the homeless shelter, which is located in his district.

“I am very, very sympathetic to your concerns,” said Church. “I’ll do everything I can to help you.”

However, said Church, the county has been besieged with requests for help this year, and he wondered whether Diakonia had approached Ocean City for help.

Nagle confirmed the organization has sought help and that the board is working on other solutions including a fundraiser later this month.

Nagle, Frick and Diakonia supporters will go before the County Commissioners again on March 18 to discuss the funding request.