Potential Demand Spike Worrries Homeless Shelter

WEST OCEAN CITY – Diakonia Director Claudia Nagle is worried that the homeless shelter will see many more people seeking shelter and services as the recession goes on, a trend she has already seen in requests for food help.

She knows that more and more people are in trouble simply from the numbers of visits to the Diakonia food pantry, which have doubled in the last few months.

“People who used to be donors, some of them are now using our food pantry,” Nagle said.

People who need help to feed their families are usually edging closer to being without shelter.

“Those folks still have their housing but it tells me how vulnerable many people are,” Nagle said.

The shelter is hosting 31 people right now, fewer people than usual with the Salisbury cold weather shelters open, which do not have the same expectations as Diakonia. As the weather warms, those shelters will close and Diakonia will see more people in need of a bed, food and services from addiction counseling to applying for disability to resume writing.           

The economy has hit people hard over the winter months in Worcester County, a particularly difficult time for the working poor already. Nagle fears that more people are going to fall into homelessness and poverty.

Diakonia has had to suspend its requirement that new residents who are able to work find a job within three days of arrival because there has been no employment open.

“Our folks haven’t had an entrance into the job market,” Nagle said, adding that those with a good work history, unlike most of Diakonia’s guests, tend to be hired first.

With spring approaching and summer season businesses beginning to stir, employment prospects are looking up. Several Diakonia guests found work through the Ocean City Job Fair last weekend with one man finding two jobs and all guests who fall under the work requirement now have employment.

With that first hurdle cleared, guests face a greater one attempting to move out on their own. “The problem we have is there’s not a whole lot of housing stock people can go into that’s affordable for rental, so people are staying longer,” Nagle said.

Transportation also poses a problem that puts some people out of work or stresses their budgets. One guest, working full-time in nursing, spent 2 1/2 hours on a bus just to get to work and had to stay overnight at the facility, or take a taxi home, after her shift because of the hour. When she switched to a day shift, she was laid off because she could not work as many hours.

Money is never far from the conversation at Diakonia. Private grants are drying up, the county has informed the shelter that there will be no county government aid this year and costs are increasing.

The stimulus bill could bridge some of those gaps, Nagle said, but most funding is directed at homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing, both initiatives that would not have much effect here.

Federal funding also often requires a local match, from local government, which Diakonia will not have this year.

The community has always been generous with donations, particularly of goods, Nagle said, and as volunteers. The shelter cannot exchange donated bread for electricity, however. Volunteers also cannot take over many of the services offered at the shelter, although there is an active group of 35 to 45 volunteers who do spend significant time helping out.

Despite increasing need and financial complications, Diakonia is looking toward the future. Nagle would like to start a thrift store, to bring in income and give guests work experience. At the moment, local strip malls want more rent than Diakonia can afford.

“It really could be a benefit. It would let people learn some skills. People could volunteer. It would generate some income,” Nagle said.