Salisbury Mayor Jake Day talks about the city’s effort to help the homeless and reduce panhandling. Produced by Ralph Musthaler
Randy Burk settles back into a comfortable arm chair in his living room at Gateway Village Apartments with a pair of frisky dachshunds in his lap.
“I love it here,” he tells visitors. “It’s so quiet.”
For the past two months, life has been good for Burk and his canine companions, Pistol and Pistol Jr., since they moved into the one-bedroom unit, but it wasn’t always so.
The three lived in Burk’s pickup truck for more than two years parked behind the Tiger Mart on Route 50 and Isabella Street in Salisbury because Burk couldn’t find a place to rent.
“Nobody wanted my dogs, but I wouldn’t get rid of them,” he said. “They’re spoiled rotten.”
He eventually got help from the city’s Housing First program which places homeless residents in houses or apartments, but he resisted offers of help at first. That sort of independence is common among folks who are used to living on the street, and city staff have to work hard to earn their trust, said Mayor Jake Day.
“It’s so challenging sometimes because people are so resistant.” he said.
The program is now in its second year and has placed 27 people, 20 of whom are still in the program, Day said.
Of the seven who left, two died and the rest were discharged from the program for not following the rules. Only one of the discharged individuals went back on the street, said Theo Williams, the city’s housing and homelessness manager.
None of the people in the city program have been arrested since they got off the street and into housing. In their previous lives, some would try to get arrested just for a meal and a bed, while others would fake injuries and use city ambulances as a taxi service, the mayor said.
Getting some of those people off the street saves about $10,000 a year in city services, Day said.
“Those police calls add up – those EMS calls add up,” he said.
Since the Housing First program started last year, Salisbury officials have actively pursued homeless residents with the goal of getting them into housing.
On a recent morning at Dunkin Donuts on South Salisbury Boulevard, they made contact with people who had been living in a tent behind the Cook Out fast food restaurant a few blocks away, Day said. Now the city is working to find permanent housing for them.
Dunkin Donuts was selected because it is where panhandlers frequently ask for money from customers lined up at the drive-through window, and Day said he and city employees wanted to bring messages to both.
Customers handing out money were asked to stop and instead donate money to organizations that help homeless people in Salisbury.
Panhandlers heard a different message: “There’s a better option, there’s a better way,” Day said.
And Dunkin Donuts isn’t the only place targeted in Salisbury.
BACKGROUND: New ‘Housing First’ approach to fighting homelessness working in Salisbury, mayor says
City employees make frequent checks at places where they know homeless people camp and congregate, and they work to get them into housing.
Day said he has personally taken people over to the city’s Housing & Community Development Department to get help. One of them was once “a common fixture” on Route 13, but he is now in a home, he said.
Last year, the city started its Housing First program which places homeless residents in houses or apartments and then helps them tackle other issues in their lives such as substance abuse and mental illness.
The program operated by the Housing & Community Development Department has $70,000 budgeted this year for housing vouchers. The city pays 70 percent of the rent to landlords who agree to accept the vouchers. Most homeless people have some sort of income, such as disability or veterans benefits, and are required to chip in the rest of the rent.
Williams said people in the program must follow three rules: they must pay rent, they cannot have people living there who aren’t on the lease and they cannon conduct criminal activity.
Furnishings for the apartments have been donated by members of the community. At Burk’s apartment, all of the furniture was collected and donated by Hebron Savings Bank where Burk has an account. The staff there even brought him a Christmas tree, gifts and food for his dogs, said Christine Chestnutt, the city’s homeless services case manager.
The community has been so generous with donations of furniture that the program’s storage unit is filled to capacity, Williams said. Currently, they are accepting only donations of things such as personal care items.
Salisbury was the first small city in the U.S. to adopt a Housing First program which has reduced chronic homelessness by 80 percent to 90 percent in New York, Los Angeles and Washington D.C., Day said.
“The bottom line is we’re exploring new ways to address homelessness,” Day said.
Life on the street
Burk, like most people who end up homeless, once led a so-called "normal" life.
Born on a farm, he lived in an orphanage from age 7 until he was 16. Eventually, he joined the Army and served from 1958 to 1961.
Back home in the Baltimore area, he worked for a home remodeling business. He married three times, the last time to Mary, his wife of 47 years. Eventually, the couple moved to the Eastern Shore and lived in a camper at the Sandy Hill Campground in Quantico.
Mary died in her sleep about 10 years ago and Burk said that at some point after that he gave the camper away because it “wore out.”
That’s when he and the dogs moved into his truck. During his time parked behind the Exxon station, Burk said he made lots of friends who would regularly stop by, bring food and coffee and check on him.
Burk, who will turn 80 in July, has had heart bypass surgery and currently suffers from COPD and bronchitis. He finally quit smoking a few weeks ago.
Now his new digs provide a safe, healthy environment where he can cook meals in his own kitchen and allow his dogs to run around and play.
He still has his truck, but now it’s used mostly for trips to Roaring Point.
“That’s some good fishing down there,” he said.