Homeless Outreach Efforts Continue In Worcester, OC

Homeless Outreach Efforts Continue In Worcester, OC
File Photo by Allen Sklar

OCEAN CITY – Officials say they continue to address homelessness in Ocean City and throughout Worcester County.

In 2018, the Worcester County Health Department, Local Behavioral Health Authority, Department of Social Services, Ocean City Police Department, Diakonia, Ocean City Crisis Coalition, and Atlantic General Hospital joined together to create the Worcester County Homeless Outreach Team (HOT), an effort to connect homeless individuals with local resources.

And while the outreach team has helped dozens of individuals since its formation, Jessica Sexauer, director of Local Management Board and Local Behavioral Health Authority, said it has no intention of slowing down.

“I think it’s important for the public to know we are out there offering support consistently, and we’re trying to help make an impact,” she said. “At the end of the day, it comes down to the people we are helping and their right to choose.”

Today, HOT consists of several agencies, nonprofits and faith-based organizations. Although the team offers outreach to homeless individuals throughout the county, efforts initially began in Ocean City, as homelessness along the Boardwalk and at transit centers had been a cause for concern among residents and visitors.

“The Homeless Outreach Team serves the entire county,” Sexauer said. “But there continues to be a lot of effort in Ocean City.”

Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) Cpl. Neshawn Jubilee, a HOT member, said the program has been successful in addressing some of the issues associated with homelessness in town.

Working with area partners, he said HOT has been able to provide individuals with things such as vital records needed for employment and housing.

“A lot of them are taking the resources we offer them,” he said.

OCPD Deputy Communications Manager Ashley Miller said the department has identified 13 homeless individuals so far in 2023 and 33 homeless individuals in 2022. She said many tend to congregate at transit stations, bus shelters and areas with overhangs.

“During winter months we usually see fourth-degree burglaries because they are trying to get out of the elements,” she added.

Deputy City Manager JR Harmon said issues also continue at Entry Park, located at the base of the Route 50 bridge. He highlighted multiple complaints and law enforcement service calls for issues such as assaults, public intoxication, littering, urination and makeshift camps, to name a few.

“Despite law enforcement’s best efforts to address the issues, complaints continued into September of 2022,” he noted. “In collaboration with surrounding property owners a decision was made to fence in the eastern portion of entrance park. This is a form of problem solving through environmental design. We believe that this will eliminate the above-described nuisance issues in that area and allow the city to secure the well house situated in the inner perimeter of the newly constructed fence.”

Officials say homelessness is a complex issue. Sexauer said a recent survey of homeless individuals in the tri-county area identified contributing factors such as chronic health illness, mental illness and substance use. Officials say they continue to offer health assessments and mental health resources.

“We try to bring a lot of resources to them …,” Jubilee said. “It’s just up to them if they take it.”

At Diakonia, officials have also launched a Rapid Response Team, which responds to calls regarding homeless individuals.

“Essentially, if someone were to call into Diakonia, the goal is to respond within the hour …,” Vance Larson, team lead, explained. “We launched last week, and we’ve already responded to four boots-on-the-ground calls.”

Larson said housing continues to be an area of concern. With a moratorium on rental evictions now expired, officials say more and more people are coming to organizations like Diakonia for assistance.

“I think COVID has made it even more challenging because what we saw happen during COVID was a stall in rental evictions …,” Sexauer said. “We had also seen a significant increase in rent happening across Worcester County, especially the north end of the county, which has higher rental values.”

Larson agreed.

“What we’re seeing is now is our population, our clientele, has diversified …,” he said. “These people up until pandemic never needed to ask for assistance.”

Sexauer said that demand has also placed a strain on shelters.

“They are often at capacity,” she said. “Rarely is there a day where I’m getting a notice that a bed is available.”

Larson, however, said HOT partners continue to do everything they can to address the needs of homeless individuals.

“I don’t think people understand the complexities and what is happening with someone who’s homeless …,” he said. “A lot of times people will be unsympathetic and aggressive that we haven’t housed them. It’s a problem that’s not going away and we’re on it. We ask people to be patient, and know we are serving to the best of our ability.”

About The Author: Bethany Hooper

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Bethany Hooper has been with The Dispatch since 2016. She currently covers various general stories. Hooper graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 2012 and the University of Maryland in 2016, where she completed double majors in journalism and economics.