OCEAN CITY – Year after year, visitors flock to the Ocean City Boardwalk, eager to take in the sights and sounds of the iconic promenade. They relish in the raucous sounds of arcade games and the enticing aromas wafting from various storefronts as waves break in the background.
This summer, however, the Boardwalk’s endearing sights and sounds have been accompanied by a growing population of homeless individuals. While there are those who attract little notice, others harass tourists.
Vacationer Marshall Reynolds said he met several of them. Reynolds said he and his wife, Ohio residents, visited Ocean City for the first time in early September.
They won’t be coming back.
“We are crossing Ocean City off our list of future vacation destinations,” Reynolds wrote in a letter to The Dispatch this week.
In an interview, Reynolds said that though he and his wife made every effort to make the most of their first visit to Ocean City, the trip was marred by panhandlers on the Boardwalk.
“We tried to ignore them,” Reynolds said.
When their comments turned profane, however, he approached a police officer.
“My wife was upset,” Reynolds said. “The officer, he was really nice but he had this look on his face like ‘oh no not again.’”
Local police officers are certainly aware of the issue. In February, police increased monitoring of the Caroline Street Comfort Station in response to reports of homeless congregating in the area. At a meeting of the Ocean City Police Commission just this week, Mayor Rick Meehan told Police Chief Ross Buzzuro he’d received numerous emails from summer visitors regarding the homeless population on the Boardwalk. Councilman Wayne Hartman agreed.
“Apparently something is changing, the numbers are increasing,” Hartman said. “There seems to be more noticeable activity by the homeless. The number of complaints coming to us, to me directly and to the council, have increased.”
According to Jessica Sexauer, director of the Worcester County Health Department’s Core Service Agency and Local Management Board, the county has seen an increase in its homeless population. What’s made that even more noteworthy is the fact that several members of that population have attracted media attention — primarily as a result of criminal allegations. The actions of several have been detailed in The Dispatch’s weekly Cops & Courts section.
While some have been arrested for relatively minor offenses such as trespassing, others have been charged with violent crimes. In June, three individuals — all with “no fixed address” — were charged with assault and robbery after threatening someone with a knife on the Boardwalk — in broad daylight.
In spite of that incident, Lindsay Richard, the Ocean City Police Department’s public information officer, said the crimes most commonly committed by the homeless in Ocean City were disorderly conduct, open container violations and fourth-degree burglary. When asked if any preventative action was being taken, Richard said police were working closely with the Worcester County Homeless Committee.
“In addition, nearly every morning our officers conduct routine checks where we know that the homeless congregate,” she said, “primarily to make sure that they are safe and healthy, but also ensure they are not violating any laws or ordinances.”
Sexauer said the committee, which is made up of health department staff as well as representatives from a variety of service organizations, had bolstered its outreach efforts in 2017. Locally, the top three reasons people become homeless are because of mental illness, because they’re fleeing domestic violence and because of substance abuse, according to tri-county data. Sexauer said that during that past nine months, the homeless committee had worked to increase face-to-face interactions with individuals identified as homeless. During those conversations, committee members provide the homeless at Caroline Street, among other locations, with information on services and help available to them.
“What needs to be flushed out is how much we should check in,” Sexauer said, adding that those offering help didn’t want to alienate anyone. “We don’t want anyone to shut down. We want to be supportive.”
The reason those offering help don’t want to antagonize those lacking permanent shelter is because in many cases they’ll be seeing them again. Sexauer said many of them were familiar to health officials because they’d been approached time and again.
“The issue is always going to be sometimes there are people that don’t want our help,” she said. “All we can do is keep checking in.”
Claudia Nagle, executive director of Diakonia, agreed. She said her organization was involved in several outreach efforts and had documented a 37-person increase in the county’s homeless population this year. While some of those lacking their own living space take advantage of help offered, others do not.
“A person can know about services and choose not to engage,” she said. “There’s not anything we can do to force them to.”
Nagle says that while the crimes committed by some individuals may have brought attention to homelessness in the resort recently, the issue is one that’s always present. She pointed out that the homeless individuals charged in local crimes represented just a small percentage of the people arrested in the area.
“The vast majority of those are not people who don’t have a fixed address …,” she said. “I understand why people are concerned but it’s not just homeless people who are engaging in these behaviors.”
Nagle said the Town of Ocean City provided her organization with funding and worked with agencies that served the homeless in an effort to address the problem. In addition to Diakonia, resources available to the local homeless population include cold weather shelters (managed by a coalition of area churches), the 2-1-1 information and referral line as well as the resources provided by the Homeless Alliance of the Lower Eastern Shore. Sexauer said the tri-county group acquired grants, helped those in need find beds and even offered case management services.
“I think that with the resources we have we are doing the best that we can,” she said. “Our goal is to end homelessness. We’re never going to have enough resources but through working together we’re going to get closer to reducing homelessness.”
Nagle echoed the importance of a cooperative community effort in addressing the issue. She stressed that homelessness was not unique to Ocean City. Neither is the population of individuals who decline to take advantage of services available to them.
“Every community has this challenge,” she said.
And while that’s true, the seasonal nature of local tourism exacerbates the problem in Worcester County. Nagle said Diakonia always experienced more requests for help during the summer. Much of that comes when rentals that are reasonably priced in the winter jump to exorbitant rates as tourists come to town.
“Housing that may be affordable in the off-season isn’t affordable in the summer,” Nagle said. While Diakonia is working to remedy that — the organization has plans for an affordable housing project on Route 611 — it will take time. “It’s not an easy fix,” she said.
In addition to housing, Diakonia also offers those in need access to a food pantry. She says this summer she’s noted a 20 percent rise in people utilizing the pantry.
“That tells me those people are vulnerable and at risk of homelessness,” she said.
While Nagle does not believe homelessness will ever disappear, she is hopeful that community support will continue and even increase as local organizations work to offer more outreach.
“I think part of it is community education and helping people to understand the challenges,” she said. “Working together is what’s going to keep this moving ahead and help our community address this issue.”