Shelters, Food Pantries Feelings Signs of Times

SNOW HILL – More people need help with food and shelter in Worcester County as prices rise and jobs dry up, and churches and non-profits are struggling to keep up with demand.

“We have probably in October doubled or more what we usually provide in terms of the amount of food to people,” said Claudia Nagle, director of Diakonia food pantry and homeless shelter in West Ocean City.

In September, Diakonia handed out 172 bags of food, but in October, the organization had handed out at least 307.

The same goes in Berlin with the Pentecoastal Baptist Church Mission, said organizer Eva Flem. “We’ve seen an increase,” said Flem.

Working families make up the majority of those who avail themselves of the church’s groceries and meals.

“They don’t have enough to make ends meet,” said Flem.

Senior citizens are the major users of Ebenezer Ecumenical Food Pantry in Snow Hill. They have similar problems stretching their social security checks to cover food.

“We’re also seeing people come back two times a month. Usually they only come once,” said Mary Waters, who runs the food pantry. “We’re seeing about a third more this year than we did last year.”

Samaritan Shelter and Food Pantry in Pocomoke City has seen shelter usage increase 21 percent in the last two years and is also handing out more than twice as many bags of food in the last few years and seen a tremendous response to the soup kitchen started last winter.

“It’s taking people longer to get out of here,” said Samaritan Shelter’s Executive Director Dan Blair.

The average stay last year was less than two weeks, but the most recent reporting period, which ended in September, showed average stays of 16.5 nights.

Three-quarters of the shelter’s users were customarily male, but now the shelter is seeing nearly equal numbers of men and women. The number of single mothers looking for help is also up.

Samaritan cannot help all of them and it’s unfortunate, according to Blair.

“When you have to tell [a single mother] I’m sorry, we’re full, that hurts,” Blair said.

Over at Diakonia, Nagle said people who have never sought assistance with food or shelter are now surfacing.

“We’re really seeing an increase in the number of families…the demand is constant.” said Nagle.

Clients at Diakonia homeless shelter in West Ocean City are required to find employment and save money before moving out of the shelter into paid housing, but that is proving more difficult than usual.

“Employment is harder and harder to find,” said Diakonia Director Claudia Nagle. “There’s just not the jobs there have been in the past.”

The most recent unemployment numbers from the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation for September show that unemployment in Worcester County went up 1.2 percent since September 2007. Preliminary October 2008 unemployment numbers show nearly a 3-percent increase over October 2007. 

Construction has nearly halted in Worcester County, leaving many out of work, while other businesses known for hiring more around the holidays are hiring fewer employees or not at all.

“Employment opportunities are not as plentiful,” said Nagle.

Fran Meyers, who runs Ocean City Baptist Church’s free job service, said more people are seeking than jobs than available employment.

“You have more people now than ever,” said Meyers.

Meyers, who acts as a matchmaker between job seekers and businesses looking to hire, said she had 17 people in her office last Friday looking for work, compared to the five or six she would expect to see.

Despite the large number of businesses closed for the off-season and the economy, Meyers said she had about 30 open spots on her desk in retail and restaurants.

People working entry-level jobs cannot afford housing, food, medical bills and transportation, said Blair.

“Nobody can live on that,” said Blair. “They can’t make it…it’s a vicious circle and it all comes down to money.”

Another effect of the housing crisis and recession is the tightening of the rental market. The conundrum for many county residents is the availability of housing versus the availability of employment. When jobs are offered in the summer tourist season, housing particularly in the north end is at a great premium, and when housing opens up in the winter, jobs have dried up. It’s a nasty cycle, officials say.

Currently, Nagle said, homeowners are losing their property in the housing crisis and moving into the limited supply of year-round rental housing in the northern half of the county, which bumps others out of that space.

“Everything is sort of like dominoes,” Nagle said. “It’s something our community is going to continue to feel.”