County Opts to Flat-Line Shelter Funding in FY09

WEST OCEAN CITY- The Diakonia homeless shelter has been awarded just $20,000 in funding from Worcester County for the next fiscal year, the same amount the county has offered the shelter in the last several years, despite higher costs and increasing needs that prompted an original request for $100,000.

The County Commissioners’ decision is a great blow to the homeless shelter, which already must weather state cuts and higher costs. The bad news comes on the heels of good, with Diakonia celebrating the raising of all the funds needed to get through an end of the year fiscal crisis that could have closed the shelter until July.

“Obviously we’re disappointed, though we understand they have difficult decisions to make. We were very surprised. We didn’t expect just flat funding,” said Diakonia executive director Claudia Nagle. “I didn’t necessarily anticipate the full request but I thought there might be a small increase.”

The county elected officials decided to flat-line funding for the shelter despite an effort by some to urge an increase. “I tried to get them at least $50,000. It just fell on deaf ears,” Commissioner Bud Church said. “I don’t know why. I don’t understand. It’s one of the most mind boggling decisions.

However, others said budget constraints simply don’t allow an increase at this time. “It’s the same as they got [before],” said Commissioner Louise Gulyas. “There’s no money. Just no money. We’re doing the same for everybody. We had to cut an awful lot of things this budget. We made drastic, drastic cuts.”

Diakonia is going to have to rely on community fundraising, Gulyas said. “I do believe the help is out there.”

The recent financial crisis that forced the shelter earlier this spring to seek $65,000 from the County Commissioners, of which it received $30,000, made the organization reach out to the community raise funds and taught them that fundraising could help sustain the program, said County Commission President Virgil Shockley.

“I think quite frankly we did the smart thing because these programs have to be supported by the community,” Shockley said. “People are going to have to realize fundraising is going to have to be integral.”

Church said that if Diakonia comes up short, the shelter would have to come back to the County Commissioners later in the year to ask for help. “For the work Diakonia does, they deserve a lot more than they got,” Church said.

Meanwhile, Nagle praised the outpouring of support from the private sector.

“The community has been incredibly supportive in raising funds,” Nagle said. “As a community we’re going to have to figure out a way to address all of those needs.”

But more people have made more requests for food, housing, and services from Diakonia, and the shelter has had to refuse some requests for services. While Diakonia usually works with more clients and requests for help at this time of year, with the winter rentals switching to weekly, tourist oriented prices, the need went up significantly from April 2007 to April 2008.

“With the economic conditions the way they are the need is just growing and growing and growing,” Nagle said.    

Last year, Diakonia had 34 guests, with two of them children under six, in April. This April just past Diakonia hosted 39 people, with six children under six. While the number of people may not be much higher, the length of stay has gone up in a dramatic fashion. “There’s a jump in bed nights of 243,” Nagle said. “That’s telling.”

Bed nights have increased from 717 to 960, a 34 percent increase.

With most shelter residents working full time, guests are still having difficulty in earning enough for housing and food to move out. Guests are required to save a large part of their pay while living at Diakonia, but pay rates in the area have not kept up with the costs of housing.

“I believe that we haven’t seen the bottom of the economic swing. As that continues, we’re going to continue to experience the need,” Nagle said. “It’s hitting people that aren’t normally blighted by hard economic times.”

In the third week of May 2008, the shelter currently houses 37 people, 11 of them children under six.

As more people experience a housing crisis, the dollar and moral cost to the community goes up, with parents seeing their children placed in foster homes, and some adults become desperate and commit crimes leading to jail, Nagle said.    

Diakonia will rework it’s budget, just under $400,000 for fiscal Year 2009, but there is no fat in the document, according to Nagle. The shelter spends just nine percent of its budget on administration, with the rest going to programming and shelter infrastructure.

“We know what we’re offering here works. It just also costs money. It’s not something you can do for free,” Nagle said.

 The Diakonia Board plans to look at long-term funding solutions. Plans are also being made to create a Friends of Diakonia fundraising group.

Nagle expects Diakonia to survive and continue to serve the community. “We’re troopers. You can’t be in this business and be faint of heart or easily discouraged, and if any community can do it, we can,” Nagle said.