(Feb. 28, 2014) After moving from house to house and struggling to make ends meet, a mother of three came to West Ocean City for Diakonia’s transitional housing program in May 2012.
Nearly two years later, Shamika has two part-time jobs, is working toward a degree in criminal justice at Wor-Wic Community College and has just moved into her own apartment.
But standing on your own can be hard, especially during the offseason in Ocean City, she said.
“It’s definitely not easy living in a resort town. It’s not. It’s hard because you’re used to bringing home every two weeks $300 or $400 (in the summer), and now you bring home $78 or $61,” she said.
Shamika lost more than 20 hours of work per week this winter, making launching out on her own difficult.
“I went through a lot,” she said. “Nobody (at jobs) was calling me and the waiting list was two or three years long. I was going to private landlords and the rent was really expensive.”
Like her, many in the area face housing insecurity — a problem exacerbated in the winter, when less work and colder temperatures can create waiting lists at emergency and transitional housing shelters, Executive Director at Diakonia Claudia Nagel said.
“Our beds are consistently occupied,” she said. “We have 40 beds for men, women and families, and those beds are consistently full.”
The shelter received more than 100 calls for unmet housing requests in January, and “that’s just a regular month,” Nagel said. Demand at Diakonia’s food pantry also spiked this winter, starting in November.
“This year in particular, there was a huge uptick in demand for our food pantry,” Nagel said, something she attributed to higher utility bills caused by long spells of sub-freezing temperatures, the slow start to summer 2013 resort season and the rising cost of food, rent and medical bills.
“Everything has gone up, but wages have not,” she said.
To help residents recover from financial hardship, Diakonia assigns each one a case manager, who helps develop a plan to get them from the transitional housing back into their own home. As long as residents are looking for work, Diakonia doesn’t limit their time in the shelter, Nagel said.
For Shamika’s family, “that allowed us to get stable, allowed us to get a bond again,” she said. “It was something we needed.”
Despite having no drug addiction, she struggled to find that stability on her own, with moving a constant threat. Workers at Diakonia helped her find a job, re-enroll in school and file child support paperwork. At Christmas, the shelter and local schools delivered presents to her children.
But Diakonia can’t always meet the demand for help in Ocean City. If the West Ocean City center is full, workers refer those in need to other shelters in the area, such as Christian Shelter, Inc. in Salisbury.
The shelter can house up to 60 people and takes some from Ocean City, Night Staff Supervisor Latisha Paul said.
“A lot of people get laid off until a certain time (in the spring) in Ocean City,” she said. “We have more access to job opportunities here.”
Doubling up on housing isn’t uncommon in the resort town, where family or friends are often willing to house the homeless during cold spells, Nagel said.
But at Samaritan Shelter, at the southern end of Worcester County in Pocomoke, the 20 beds stayed full for months this winter, Director Shelly Daniels said.
“We’ve actually turned people away,” she said, but “we try and make sure somebody has a place to stay.”
Part of the problem is the influx of workers who come to the Eastern Shore looking for jobs in the summer months, Daniels said.
“People get those jobs for a few months, or they’ll find a place to rent, and then the season ends, they lose their hours (and) they lose their place to stay,” she said. “A lot of people… are just waiting for the season to start again.”
Samaritan Shelter is working with local businesses to form alliances and get people re-employed in year-round jobs. In January, four staying at the shelter found full-time work through the program, Daniels said.
Nagel agreed, living in a resort is “a huge contributing factor because year-round employment is difficult to find. It’s not a good time, especially when it gets this cold.”
Most of the residents at Diakonia hold jobs, but cannot find fulltime work in the offseason, like Shamika, she said.
“We help get them connected to other services in the community (and) look for jobs,” Nagel said.
And for Shamika, that’s been “a really, really good experience,” leading to her move last Tuesday.
“I’m definitely excited because it’s been a long time coming,” she said days before moving into her own apartment. “If you want a change or you want to start over again, this is definitely the right place to do.”
She plans to return to Diakonia for visits or to help out.
Shelters are constantly seeking volunteers and donations. Visit www.diakoniaoc.org to learn more about Diakonia or how to get involved.