Aid, volunteers desperately needed for Salisbury shelter

The Community Emergency Shelter Project can only hold 30 guests. This year, they will be kept 6 feet apart at all times, with dividers between beds.

Walter Davidson is a man with a low-key, calm demeanor backed up by an immovable conviction that he has been called upon by God to devote his personal time to serving the needs of one of society’s most vulnerable populations – those who have no place to call home.

It is a huge task, but especially so during what is arguably the most challenging year ever for our area’s homeless.

This is the year of Covid-19, sometimes referred to as the dark winter of pandemic. That’s no exaggeration.

Walter Davidson.

Davidson recognizes the special challenges imposed by this 2021 shelter season, which runs January through March each year. The 17-year-old Community Emergency Shelter Project, which opened last week, will provide beds and meals to 30 homeless men each evening, as well as twice-weekly showers.

Although the men will report to the Langeler Memorial Building, which is owned by Wicomico Presbyterian Church, churches, participating partner congregations and faith communities remain indispensable on a daily basis to the success of the project.

And this year, it will truly take a commitment by our entire community to pull it off.

Davidson didn’t start this season, his second as coordinator, with nothing.

“I have 65 cots and about 15 bags of pillows, blankets and other items stored in my pole barn,” Davidson said a week before the shelter opened. “What I need the most are men who can volunteer for the overnight shift, which is 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.”

The need for those volunteers cannot be overstated. If ever there was a need for 100 good men to step up to the plate, it’s now. The shelter opened Saturday, Jan. 2.

An overnight shift is not as daunting a task as it sounds.

“It requires two gentlemen per night,” Davidson said. “One can sleep four hours while the other keeps an eye on things. And usually by 9:30 or 10 p.m., everyone is asleep. It’s really the easiest shift, except that it’s overnight.”

He said the shelter will provide all volunteers full personal protective equipment. For the overnight shift, only men will be allowed to serve, because the shelter is for men only. The shelter will be open for 87 nights, which means 174 volunteer overnight shifts.

“There’s no minimum commitment,” Davidson said. “We do require an orientation. The most that will be required, beyond being awake at least four hours, is to make and bag 30 sandwiches for the men to take with them the following day.” But that’s only if no one has donated sandwiches for that particular day, he pointed out.

“We keep things on hand in case we run out of donations,” he said.

The shelter can only hold 30 guests, first-come basis. This year, they will be kept 6 feet apart at all times, with dividers between beds. Because of Covid-19 concerns, they will not gather this year around a table for meals and fellowship; they will be served their food within their cubicles. The plexiglass and shower-curtain dividers will not isolate them much visually, it does offer the best available protection from illness.

“And we are keeping them from freezing to death at night,” Davidson said. “That is our No. 1 goal.” That has always been the goal of the shelter project, which was conceived in the aftermath of death by exposure one winter nearly two decades ago.

Between fears about Covid-19 and the prospect of staying awake overnight, it’s been really tough to find enough volunteers. He’s not going to let that stop him from operating the shelter, but he is only one man.

Several churches that have participated in the past with housing and feeding the men have signed up to provide some meals, although more is needed. The men who come to the shelter are fed a hot meal for dinner in the evening and breakfast in the morning, and they leave with a brown-bag lunch in hand to get them through the next day.

Because the shelter will operate in the same spot for the season, the number of men who can stay on any given night will remain stable, and so the number of meals to prepare will not change, making it easier to plan.

A $5,000 grant from the Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore will cover $3,000 rent for the building January through March, and related expenses such as protective equipment for volunteers and additional food to cover meals that are not donated. Additional funding and other support may be available in the near future.

The reduced but stable number of men should make it easier to get commitments for 90 meals per day.  

Meals may be prepared off-site and dropped off, or volunteers could choose to take advantage of the full-feature commercial kitchen on on-site.

Each man entering will be tested for Covid-19, although results will not be instantly available. Everyone in the building will be required to wear masks except while eating or drinking.

In addition to providing a warm place to lay their heads during the coldest months of winter, bi-weekly showers will be provided by Leslie McGinnity, who operates Beyond Your Walls, a mobile shower trailer that serves area homeless who lack access to regular showers. She will be on-site each Tuesday and Friday for the duration of the shelter.

Surprisingly, a few of the men who rely on the shelter are employed. They just don’t earn enough to house themselves. This is a situation exacerbated by the pandemic and the economic crisis it has created in addition to the public health crisis.

The United Way of the Lower Eastern Shore leads Lower Shore participation in the Maryland A.L.I.C.E Report. That acronym stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed – often referred to as the “working poor.” One aspect of that report is a compilation of minimum budgets tied directly to Lower Shore county incomes and costs of living. Wicomico County is representative of such budget figures.

As of 2014, the most recent year with data available, a single adult requires $18,048 per year to meet a survival budget – that’s minimal food, shelter, transportation, health care and other basic costs. Not included are any savings or cellphone. A “miscellaneous” category may be enough to cover basic utilities. There is no wiggle room for the most minor of unexpected expenses. And remember, those expenses are from 2014.

A full-time minimum-wage job in Maryland has climbed from $11 per hour in 2020 to $11.75 in 2021. In annual gross terms, such a job climbs from $22,880 to $24,440. This amounts to roughly the survival budget, given that the latest figures for the survival budget are six years out of date.

The “stability” budget for a single adult comes in at $32,604 and includes some monthly savings and a cell phone. It, too, is based on 2014 figures.

Most of the shelter guests, of course, are not employed, and a part-time job will not meet even the survival budget figures for a single adult.

How to help

Community Emergency Shelter Project, Langeler Memorial Building, 225 North Division St., Salisbury, MD 21801

This year’s shelter will run through March 27.

Men should arrive 5 to 8 p.m. each evening.

Monetary Donations:

  • Park Seventh Day Adventist Church, 31525 John Deere Drive, Salisbury, MD 21804

In the memo corner of the check, write “CESP,” to ensure those donations go straight to the shelter.

To sign up to provide meals, visit /mealtrain/2y20d8. None of the meals may include pork.

  • To refer homeless individuals or those in need of resources and support in Maryland, call the 24/7 hotline for referrals at 211, visit 211md.org or text your ZIP code to 898-211.

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