(Nov. 22, 2013) Anyone looking for an impromptu camping trip in downtown Ocean City may just be out of luck, as the town has boarded up the spaces beneath the park’s piers in response to a growing concentration of homeless residents in the area.
Due to apparent complaints about the condition of Sunset Park, the Ocean City Police Department, with the assistance of city public works crews, installed barriers beneath the venue’s stage and observation deck to prevent vagrants from taking refuge there.
“It’s just not safe, considering that the tide could come right in there,” said OCPD spokesperson Lindsay O’Neal. “They could be sleeping and end up trapped under the pier.”
Sunset Park, located next to the Coast Guard station on the bayside of the city’s South Division Street right-of-way, has served as an impromptu gathering place for many of the area’s so-called “marginally housed” residents, i.e., those who might have a place to live for periods of time, but default to sleeping in the open when other options are unavailable or out of reach.
Although the space beneath the bayside decks is quite low, beer cans and other refuse can still be seen behind the boards and plastic lattice that were used to close the space up last week. O’Neal said the city also did a considerable amount of cleaning.
One man in the park last week, who gave his name as Derek, said he had slept there at times when he was unable to stay the night with a friend.
“Nobody bothers you if you pick up after yourself, but people have been leaving bottles and stuff all over the place and it makes it bad for everyone,” he said.
Derek and others may very well still be sleeping in the park, just not under the piers.
“To my understanding, people are still there,” O’Neal said. “Only if they’re staying in an unsafe spot, or on someone’s private property…do we have reason to give them any trouble.”
Further, O’Neal said, the city has taken issue with people pirating electricity. Sunset Park’s stage area has a number of easily accessible outlets for sound and lighting equipment, which are used by homeless residents to charge cell phones and other devices.
“We did ask them to please refrain from using city electricity,” O’Neal said.
The common wisdom is that the resort’s homeless population jumps during the winter, when jobs and accommodations dry up. Many marginally housed residents go out on the street once their money runs out at the end of the season.
“We know that employment in our area is very seasonal,” said Claudia Nagle of Diakonia, the West Ocean City-based nonprofit that provides emergency shelter and support for those in need.
“Unemployment goes up, and people are in need,” Nagle said. “We’ve already got the lowest wages in the state with some of the highest costs of living.”
Government authorities and private property owners often refer the homeless to Diakonia when removing them from an area, Nagle said, but the demand typically out-strips supply.
“Most of the time, our beds are full,” she said. “And it also depends on if people are willing to take advantage of that referral.”
“Our numbers are very high, higher than they were in the previous three years,” Nagle said. “The need is out there and it isn’t going away.”