(Sept. 29, 2017) Ocean City officials have made the homeless population a priority, now that residents and visitors have spotted them more frequently on the Boardwalk this summer.

“We have a plan that’s ongoing, from an operations standpoint, on how we’re addressing this issue,” Police Chief Ross Buzzuro told the council during the Sept. 18 session. “We’ve been very proactive throughout the summer and that is something we’ll continue.”

Earlier this month, Mayor Rick Meehan and Councilman Wayne Hartman asked Ocean City Police to keep an eye on the people who camp out on the boards. The City Council received several complaints on the matter, raising questions whether the homeless population is rising or harassing behavior is becoming more apparent.

But Bruce Young, who runs Shepherd’s Crook food pantry, said the homeless population has always been here — it’s just that more people see them.

“Right now, I can walk down to the Boardwalk and see a few of them by the Caroline Street Comfort Station,” he said. “They like to go there to get out of the sun and it’s a bathroom. I’d say there’s about eight homeless people that live here year-round that we serve. Traditionally, we see 50 of them between May and October.”

Shepherd’s Crook operates like a supermarket out of a small space on South Baltimore Avenue, five days a week. Every morning, guests quickly sign in and line up in front of a volunteer to get their daily rations. Neat rows of canned and packaged food, and toilet paper and bottled water, sit on wire racks behind the volunteer station. Next to the food distribution center, there’s a card table filled with frozen breakfast sandwiches, hot coffee and iced tea.

Some guests, including the homeless and J-1 visa students, quickly load up a plastic bag for the day. Others take their time, sit down and enjoy a meal, or a conversation with another guest or volunteers.

Young said in the height of summer, Shepherd’s Crook serves about 100 guests — including the “seasonal homeless” population.

“There’s somewhere between 15 and 20 people that sleep on the Boardwalk in the summer. Those are people in their 20s and 30s that came here for work, and couldn’t find anything, or their partner just left them here high and dry,” he said. “They’re not destitute, but they’re a little lost.”

This type of homelessness is not a new issue to Ocean City. People used to sleep at the “Underwood Hotel” — slang for sleeping under the Boardwalk. When the City Council made it illegal to sleep on the beach after 10 p.m., the homeless moved to the overnight buses until that service was cut.

Finally, some slept in the shrubbery at Sunset Park. Last year, the city posted signs at the downtown park listing operating hours, formally making overnight stays there a crime.

“There’s been things done over the years to disrupt them. Now we see them, because there’s not many places left — and there’s not that many people here in the winter to see them,” Young said.

Ocean City Police’s “proactive” approach has resulted in 93 incident reports regarding homeless individuals between June 1 and Sept. 12. Of that amount, 46 calls for service were made by citizens. The primary offense in those reports are alcohol violations, disorderly conduct and other petty crimes.

“The fact that the number of incident reports completed by officers is significantly higher than citizens, shows that our officers are proactive with their enforcement,” Police Public Affairs Specialist Lindsay Richard said. “Nearly every morning our officers conduct routine checks where we know that the homeless congregate, primarily to make sure that they are safe and healthy, but also [to] ensure they are not violating any laws or ordinances.”

Ocean City Police are also working in tandem with the Worcester County homelessness council, one of several launched across the state by Gov. Robert Ehrlich years ago. Ocean City Police have made rounds with council members periodically to try and provide resources to homeless individuals.

Diakonia Executive Director Claudia Nagle said her organization also reached out to the homeless population with the homeless council in January. During that tour, 35 unsheltered people were identified throughout Worcester County.

“We’re well aware of the issue and we try and reach out to them, but we can’t force them to seek help,” she said. “We’re working with several initiatives, like Shepherd’s Crook, and with the state and county to try and address their needs.”

Nagle agreed Ocean City’s homeless issue seems to be growing more severe, because they have now moved to the resort’s popular tourist attraction.

“It seems a lot more than eight [year-round people]. I think it’s hard to miss them when they’re harassing people on the Boardwalk, but otherwise you can’t tell who is homeless and who isn’t,” she said. “Lots of folks blend in, so you have to be there early in the morning to see who’s sleeping there.”

Even though the homeless population shrinks in the winter, Young stressed the year-round group struggles on the streets.

“Normally, they’re mentally ill or addicted to drugs and alcohol,” Young said. “I usually don’t recognize the names in the newspaper’s police section, but I did once [recognize] a woman that came in here regularly. She fell into a bad crowd and tried to rob someone for his cigarettes.

“It took me a long time to realize that I can’t save or change people,” Young continued. “But I can be part of God’s plan and help them in this way.”

Increasing the amount of affordable housing in the summer could help the homeless population, particularly in Ocean City when rental prices skyrocket to cater to the vacation market. Diakonia is currently planning a housing project on Route 611, in addition to the organization’s 35 beds at its existing facility.

“Every community deals with homelessness, and ours is relative,” Nagle said. “It’s prevalent in the summertime, but there’s serious concerns for the year-round group. But it’s a problem we’ve always faced — whether it’s visible or not.”

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