Finding shelter for displaced families an ongoing task

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OCEAN CITY — The cell phone that hadn’t stopped ringing rang yet again, and this time it was good news. A woman was calling from Florida; she owned a condominium in Ocean City’s south end and was interested in renting it to a displaced family for a modest fee, but the unit didn’t have a garbage disposal.

Kathy Sykes smiled as she assured the caller that the garbage disposal would not be an issue and storm victims would be happy to utilize the high and dry, three bedroom second floor unit. She took down all the details, checked the long list of displaced families, and within minutes, a family had a place to stay.

Sykes and Karin Gleason are the volunteer coordinators of a massive housing drive matching those in need with those willing to assist. Working under the umbrella of OCNJ CARE, a volunteer humanitarian effort sponsored by the city, local churches and the Chamber of Commerce, they’re using a make-shift office in the second floor command center at St. Peter’s United Methodist Church. The effort has been non-stop since Hurricane Sandy flooded thousands of homes. 

Most calls, Sykes said, are from those in need. A giant excel spread sheet on the wall – maintained by Lorraine and John Hansen – highlights dozens of homeless families, detailing various needs. Surrounded by colorful post-it notes, it is, Sykes said, a work in progress and will be for a very long time.

“We feel that we have the critical people covered,” Sykes said.

Yet three weeks after the storm blew through, the list continues to grow.

“We think we have someone taken care of then we’re back to square one,” Gleason said.

Some fled the storm and stayed in a hotel, but it gets expensive. Some who thought they only needed temporary shelter, and stayed with friends or family, are now finding they may be out of their home for months.

While a majority of the city’s more than 19,000 residences are seasonal rentals sitting empty in the off-season, finding second homeowners willing to try a winter rental hasn’t been easy. Most need the summer income and want the units empty for would-be renters to check out. Some don’t want to take a chance on a winter rental; others utilize the units themselves during the offseason.

But some have stepped up and offered their units to strangers for minimal cost and that makes Sykes and Gleason very happy.

“We had one lady who wanted to adopt a family, and she let a single mother and her two little girls stay in her place,” Sykes said. “She bought the little girl a Christening gown, made sure that they had food. People have been incredibly generous.”

“It takes a special, special person to tell us, ‘Go ahead, let someone use it, the key is under the mat,’” she said. “We’ve had a few of those.”

Many of the city’s condotel and efficiency units are being utilized, Sykes said.

“Things continue to change, we’re looking at a long-term project here,” Sykes said.

Pets, Sykes said, are creating a big problem.

“Most of the rental units won’t take them, so it’s been very difficult,” she said. “We’re trying to find housing and place pets. We’ve put things on Facebook, looking for families who are willing to shelter, foster a pet for a while. If someone is looking to help, that’s a good way to help.

The city’s Hispanic population, the women noted, was particularly hard hit. Washed out of rental units in low-lying areas, it took a while for their needs to surface.

“There is a very big Hispanic population and at first they did not trust us,” Gleason said. OCNJ CARE hosted a meeting with the Hispanic community last week and about 60 showed up.

“It was very, very positive, very well received,” she said. “They need help and we have a lot of people willing to help them. We asked Father Diaz at St. Augustine’s to make an announcement.

“Their homes were washed out, they have no leases, for most it was a month-to-month deal. This is a community that does not go through a real estate agent,” Gleason said.

Gleason said she worries what will happen after the units that these families used to occupy are repaired. Landlords may jack up the rent to “like new” prices some may not be able to afford.

“Where will they go? They may have to leave Ocean City. Most of them don’t have vehicles. It’s traumatizing for them. They lived on the margins to begin with. Some were trying to stay in their units, despite how wet and cold they were. They didn’t know where to turn,” Gleason said.

“A lot of them are now unemployed, they worked in restaurants that are now closed,” she said. “We have been looking for work for some of them, as well as housing. Some of them are working for contractors. We’re doing what we can to help them.”

Sykes said the housing effort is now starting to enter phase II.

“People are healing from the trauma, they have a foot in a place somewhere,” she said. “Next, they are going to need furniture, beds and other things. Every family is different, their circumstances are different, and their needs are different.”

Sykes said despite her proximity to the ocean she was blessed that the storm did not ruin her home or displace her family.

“You feel so bad for these people,” she said.

Working with local Realtors, including Kevin Redmond, and the Ocean City Board of Realtors, the housing effort was started.   

“It’s been very heartwarming, to be able to help some of these families,” Sykes said.

Still many families are still in need.

“It’s going to take a while to get that list down, we’ve placed dozens of families, but like we said, every time we have someone taken care of, someone new pops up,” Syke said s. “I think our mission here is going to constantly evolve, unfortunately. This problem is not going away anytime soon.”

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