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Homeless In Ocean City: Worcester County Faces Growing Need

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Kenny's encampment in the woods, not far from the beach in Ocean City, Md. The coastal area is seeing an increasing number of homeless people. 
Bryan Russo
Kenny's encampment in the woods, not far from the beach in Ocean City, Md. The coastal area is seeing an increasing number of homeless people. 

A white man with graying hair moves nimbly through the thicket and briars in the woods, leaping over marshy patches and fallen trees. His name is Kenny, and he's on his way to the place he's called home for more than a year: a red tent where he keeps everything he owns. It's less than two miles from the beach in Ocean City, Md.

He uses broken chairs and old t-shirts as directional markers when he does the trip through the forest at night. It’s a long and rugged walk. 

"If I don't have my tools, I can't work," explains Kenny, a 60-year-old Vietnam veteran, who takes the hike to pick up his painting and drywall tools. 

It's difficult to imagine how close he is to the resort where millions of tourists come to put their feet in the sand, sip orange crushes and make summertime memories with their kids. But for many of the people who live in Ocean City all year, making ends meet is a struggle. A growing number have been forced to live outdoors in makeshift tents.

Weathering life, and Hurricane Sandy, in a tent

Kenny, who asked that his last name not be used, is a painter by trade. He has lived on the Eastern Shore his entire life. He used to have a good job — somewhere in the $50,000 per year range — but he lost it when the housing market crashed several years ago. He's been living in the woods since then.

Earlier this month, after riding out Hurricane Sandy in his tent, he left most of his possessions there and went to Diakonia, the local homeless shelter in Worcester County. Now, as he returns, he finds it knocked down by vandals. 

Kenny is visibly upset that his home, which managed to make it through a hurricane, has been slashed to threads.

"I pretty much know the boys that done this. I'd like to put them in their place for a little while … mom and dad put them out for a month make them live without any money," he says. "I didn't bother nobody. If something happens at least I could’ve come back to it."

Kenny pulls a tarp over the entire tent, grabs the painting and drywall tools he has carried from campsite to campsite for the past few years and abandons the tent for now, walking back toward the road.

Many are closer to homelessness than they think  

Many of Kenny's days are like this.

"You are always trying to get washed up, catch a shower, catch some food," Kenny says, remembering how he and some other homeless people would wait outside Phillips' Seafood for the garbage to be thrown out. "And while you were doing that part of it, you were hustling for a job, panhandling, whatever you could do," Kenny says. 

He believes people who do still have a home and a job don't realize how quickly fortunes can change.

"If you lose your job, how much savings do you have to really get you through," he says. "If it's just a few thousand dollars, you are less than 90 days away from being homeless." 

Kenny might be right. The number of people going to Diakonia, the lone homeless shelter in Worcester County, has quadrupled in recent years, according to executive director Claudia Nagel. The waiting list for a bed at the shelter is several months long, and its food pantry is now so vitally important that people who used to donate a substantial amount of food are now standing in line for a meal.

"It's really startling, when you see the numbers of people we are looking at," Nagel says. "Last week, we distributed over 600 bags of food to individuals and families."

Tourism economy takes toll on full-time residents

Worcester County, a tourist region with a fragile seasonal economy, is considered one of the more wealthy counties in the state. But because of the numbers of retirees who relocate there, that wealthy statistic does not necessarily translate to jobs. Much of the wealth is brought to the coast, and not necessarily made there.

In addition, 85 percent of the properties in Ocean City are not owned by the full-time residents. The unemployment rates usually jump into the double digits in the off season, regardless of the state of the economy, due to the amount of tourism workers who are left without a job when the summer ends and the businesses close for the winter.

Last winter, unemployment reached 14 percent in Worcester county in the offseason, which means people like Kenny who live at Diakonia and are desperately looking for work, have an uphill battle this time of year.

"I'm not saying it's gonna get better, but it can't get much worse," says Kenny.

So Kenny carries on, with his belongings stuffed in a tent deep in the woods and his tools slung over his back as he searches for his next job.


[Music: "Sea of Love" by Tom Waits from Brawlers / "Can't Find My Way Home," by Alison Krauss from Crossing Jordan]

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