OCEAN CITY – A collaborative effort to address homelessness in and around Ocean City earned the praise of resort officials this week.
On Monday, members of the Worcester County Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) presented the Ocean City Police Commission with an update on efforts to provide support services to homeless individuals in Ocean City and throughout the county.
The effort to address the homeless population in Worcester County began last year, as homelessness on the Boardwalk in Ocean City started gaining the attention of residents, visitors, resort agencies and media outlets.
Officials have cited complaints from tourists, and police reports including individuals with “no fixed address” who have been charged with crimes like disorderly conduct and burglary.
“We started getting a lot of attention for our homeless population in Ocean City …,” said the Worcester County Health Department’s Sara Howell. “So we took it upon ourselves to form this group.”
To that end, the HOT team – comprised of partnerships among the Worcester County Health Department, Local Behavioral Health Authority, Local Management Board, Department of Social Services, Ocean City Police Department (OCPD), Diakonia, Ocean City Crisis Coalition, and Atlantic General Hospital – was created.
“What this is, is a collaboration of resources …,” OCPD Lt. Dennis Eade said. “The issue was we were all doing our own thing and sometimes the right hand might not have known what the left hand was doing.”
The HOT team began conducting bi-weekly visits to homeless individuals in the Ocean City area last fall.
As of July 3, the team has reached 40 homeless individuals. Sixty percent of them have now secured housing.
Howell said the goal of the program is to provide access to resources, remove barriers and reduce stigma. She said team members offer information regarding shelters, food pantries, behavioral health resources, medical appointments and more. They even help people obtain birth certificates and identification.
“In order to get into housing or inpatient, or to get a job or bank account, an ID is crucial,” she said. “Before we even talk about resources, we have to make sure they have the proper identification.”
Howell said the HOT program often reduces the costs associated with homelessness. She noted, for example, that team members can often assess an individual’s health situation before utilizing emergency services.
“One of the guys has actually been to the emergency room 62 times so far this year,” she said. “He’s costing us right now about $85,000 between ER visits and EMS transports. We are seeing that a lot of these homeless individuals are utilizing services like EMS and other things to get off the street. It’s a huge problem in Worcester County.”
Team members noted that mental health and substance abuse disorders were common among the homeless individuals that were reached. Howell added that many could not find affordable housing because of their criminal records.
“The point is the landlords don’t want to accept these people because of their criminal history,” she said.
The HOT team told commission members that 13 of the 40 individuals that were reached are currently using shelters. They said the goal is to continue gaining their trust in order to help them.
“That’s why it’s important we go out to them on a bi-weekly basis,” Howell said.
Tracy Simpson, Worcester County’s drug court coordinator, said the HOT team began their efforts in Ocean City, but hope to expand their outreach to jurisdictions throughout the county.
“The whole goal was once this was workable and successful then we would expand it to the county,” she said. “That’s phase two.”
Members of the HOT team noted the percentage of homeless children in Worcester County exceeded the state average, and 42% of kids are enrolled for free and reduced-price meals.
“We are starting to see that they are living in cars or at Diakonia,” Eade said. “That’s our next generation, quite frankly.”
Members of the police commission commended the HOT participants for their efforts.
“You’ve got a lot of hands in this right now,” Council President Lloyd Martin said. “But the more you have, the better it is.”
Ocean City Police Chief Ross Buzzuro also praised members for tackling a challenging issue.
“I want to commend you all for the work that you are doing,” he said. “We are proud to be partners with you.”
Mayor Rick Meehan agreed.
“With all of you working together, it is setting a great example,” he said. “And that is how we achieve these goals.”