OCEAN CITY — With homeless concerns apparently spreading toward the bayside, residents this week issued a plea for help from the city.
During the public comment period of Tuesday’s Mayor and Council meeting, downtown resident Kathy Grimes raised the issue of a growing homeless problem conflicting with the otherwise idyllic setting along the bayfront between 3rd and 4th streets near the downtown park complex and residential neighborhoods.
It’s no secret Ocean City, like many communities, has had a growing homelessness issue in recent years and has taken steps to relieve it, both from an enforcement side and a holistic approach involving treatment and assistance.
Heretofore, many of the town’s homeless issues have been focused around the Boardwalk, particularly in the area of the Caroline Street comfort station, along with the downtown bus depots and tram stations, for example, because those areas provide shelter and close proximity to restrooms. There was a time when there was a significant homeless problem at Sunset Park, but that was cured somewhat with diminished park hours, trespassing signage and increased surveillance and enforcement.
On Tuesday, Grimes said the issue has spread into other areas including near the bayfront community in which she lives. Grimes told the Mayor and Council she was speaking on behalf of the Crab Cove community along the bayfront downtown.
“I’m here to talk about the fishing pier between 3rd and 4th Street and Chicago Avenue,” she said. “We have a problem with the homeless down there on the benches. It’s gotten to the point we are coming to you for help.”
Grimes said several homeless individuals have now reside on the benches along the bayfront adjacent to her community. They reportedly sleep on the benches at night and during the day, they are stashing their belongings underneath the benches until they return.
“They sleep on the benches and they leave their things rolled up under the benches during the day,” she said. “It might be their blankets or the tarps they use when it rains. They are also using our bushes for their personal use, if you know what I mean.”
In terms of sleeping on the benches, there are city ordinances prohibiting that, but enforcement is sometimes challenging. When the city had a problem with the homeless sleeping on Boardwalk benches, particularly in the Caroline Street area, one solution was to install dividers in the middle of the benches to prevent individuals from completely sprawling out and sleeping on them. Grimes suggested a similar solution could be implemented on the benches along the bulkhead near her bayfront community.
“I’ve seen what you’ve done at Caroline Street and it is wonderful,” she said. “My suggestion is, maybe you could put dividers on these benches so they can’t lay out and sleep.”
Grimes said increased signage and more enforcement could held curtail some of the issues.
“If you could put signs up like you have on the Boardwalk that there is no sleeping on the benches, it could help the residents down there,” she said. “The renters come down here and see that at night too. We are coming to you for help.”
Councilman Mark Paddack asked if Grimes’ community had no trespassing signs posted, to which she replied yes. Paddack suggested residents in the community become the eyes and ears for the police department, who will enforce the ordinances when they are alerted.
“It has been an issue off and on down there for many, many years,” he said. “The one thing we need from the Crab Cove residents is when you see something, say something. Call it in immediately when it is occurring and our police department will respond quickly to address these types of issues. When you see them on your property, call it in. Trespassing arrests are very simple.”
While increased surveillance, enforcement and ultimately arrests have somewhat curtailed the homeless issue in the resort, a coalition of public and private entities have partnered over the last year to take a more holistic approach to solving some of the challenges.
Last year, in the wake of increased challenges with the homeless in the resort, the Worcester County Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) was created. It’s a partnership between the Worcester County Health Department, the local Behavioral Health Authority, the Department of Social Services, the Ocean City Police Department, Diakonia, the Ocean City Crisis Coalition and Atlantic General Hospital.
The HOT program was created to find ways to get the homeless the resources they need, whether it is housing, medical attention, food, counseling, job placement and a myriad of other services. It has had some success in addressing the issues, but in order for it to work, the homeless individuals have to want the services, officials have reported.