With Future in Question, Life Hangs in Balance for Diakonia Residents

WEST OCEAN CITY – If a funding shortfall causes the West Ocean City shelter Diakonia to close its doors, Cara Devoe and her two young sons could soon be out on the street.

Devoe was homeless when she arrived at Diakonia in November 2007 with two-year-old Tyler. Five-year-old Trey had been sent to live with grandparents temporarily, as Devoe moved from place to place, wherever someone would lend her room for a few days.

Last April, Devoe was physically assaulted during a break-in at her apartment, keeping her out of work for some time and leaving her with depression and paranoia. She lost her job, and lost her place to live.

“This is like a home,” said Devoe, sitting on the loveseat in a small apartment in Diakonia’s transitional housing building, as her two young sons played around her.

Trey, reunited with his mother and brother, is now in school. The family goes to counseling and Devoe says she has gotten a handle on her mental health issues. She has even been able to save money towards a life outside the shelter, thanks to Diakonia’s requirement that guests save 80 percent of any income. As soon as she can find daycare for Tyler, Devoe is anxious to get back to work.

Without Diakonia, Devoe said she would probably be on the street and separated from her sons.

“Without being here, I wouldn’t have been able to have done it,” Devoe said. “I’ve seen people where I am. I’ve seen the successful leave. That’s going to be me one of these days.”

Shelter property manager Susan Blaney sees the issue from both sides. She came to Diakonia ten years ago and stayed for six months while she got into recovery. 

“My mother dropped me off here. It’s the best thing that could have happened to me,” Blaney said.

Michele Dize is unusual for Diakonia’s guests, as this is her third time at the shelter. This time, she wants to get it right.

“I would like to stay and get into transitional housing, get my mental health and financial health,” Dize said, sitting on the couch in the emergency shelter’s cozy living room. “I want to learn to be successful by myself, without being dependent on anybody else.”

Tim Schultz has been at Diakonia for two months, and just started working.

“I was using heroin and coke and PCP and alcohol for 18 years, so I really forgot how to live,” he said.  Now, Schultz wants to stay sober, get a full-time job, and a home of his own.

“We’re trying to give the guests structure, trying to teach them some life skills,” said Blaney. “I love this place. It teaches so much they need to know.”

For the shelter’s current residents, the message is hitting home. “They show structure and responsibility whether we want it or not,” Dize said. “That’s a good thing.”

Diakonia concentrates on finding resources for guests, from food stamps to mental health counseling to funding for education.

“Instead of just allowing someone to come and stay here, we do intense work with him,” said case manager Megan McDonald. “When they go back in the community, they’re a completely different person.”       

Blaney agreed. “We want to make them good citizens of this county,” she said. “It’s about getting people in a community and learning skills so they never have to become homeless again.”

For the counselors, a little nudge is sometimes all it takes. “We give them the resources and let them go with it,” McDonald said. “We don’t hold their hand, but we give them a little push.”

Diakonia has arranged for a young woman with four children who wants to go to college to take placement tests at the One Stop Job Market. If her scores are high enough, her education will be paid for, McDonald said.

The emergency shelter offers a roof, bed, meals, and case management for 30 days, with a possibility of moving to transitional housing for up to two years if the guest fulfills the program set up by shelter case managers.

If Diakonia shuts down until July, current and future guests would not only lose the roof over their heads, but also the chance to better themselves and their life skills.

“There would be so many people without homes. It would be a disaster,” McDonald said. “We’ve worked so hard to get these people to where they are right now. If we stop that and send people out on their own it’ll be devastating. They’ll be right back where they were if not worse.”

Some were left questioning the alternatives. “I assume the churches would have to open,” Blaney said. “The closest shelter is Salisbury.”

Diakonia workers and guests are living in limbo, waiting to hear next week whether the Worcester County Commissioners will step in with a $65,000 grant to keep the shelter going until the new fiscal year funding begins in July.

“It’s scary. It’s really scary,” McDonald said. “I don’t care about my job. I care about them.”

“We don’t want to think of that happening,” said Blaney.

Guests at Diakonia would not be there if they had anywhere else to go.

“We have people in the shelter scared out of their minds. They don’t know what they’d do,” McDonald said. “We tell them, hope. Believe.”