Gov. Chris Christie expressed concern about the influx of homeless people from other areas of the state into Atlantic City during a speech to a crowd of about 300 people Thursday on Long Beach Island.
A number of municipalities around the region are sending their homeless to the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, and they wind up sleeping on the streets of the city because they have nowhere to go, Christie said.
“Essentially, what Atlantic County is telling me is, ‘Why should we be responsible for other places’ homeless?’ Atlantic City, in particular, cannot be a place where all the homeless are being sent,” he said. “It’s not fair, and it’s not right. Atlantic City is trying to revitalize, and some of the homeless are contributing to the crime in Atlantic City.”
On Thursday evening, Tourism District Commander Tom Gilbert, who was returning from a meeting with Protecting Atlantic City’s Environment, said the issue was just being addressed.
“We’re looking at all the issues that impact the dynamics in Atlantic City,” Gilbert said. “From quality of life up to crime.”
Also at the meeting were Bill Southrey and Dan Brown from the Atlantic City Rescue Mission.
The city gained negative international attention when a homeless woman from Philadelphia allegedly stabbed to death two Canadian tourists outside AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center’s City Campus in May.
“That was an isolated incident,” said Deputy Chief Eric Dooley, filling in for Chief Ernest Jubilee, who is out of the area.
He pointed to the quick action of Officer Jacob Abbruscato, who disarmed the woman in seconds, as an example of how well the city’s officers are trained.
Law-enforcement leaders agree the violence in the city is not traced to the homeless. But efforts have been made to get the homeless off the streets and matched with the social service agencies they need to get help.
“We want to compassionately deal with the people who are here,” Gilbert said.
Christie also reminded the crowd Thursday that it would not be prudent for other areas of the state to incorporate casino gambling and cripple Atlantic City with competition. Christie said adding casino gambling to other regions in New Jersey would result in saturation.
The goal of the revitalization of Atlantic City is to help the city attract conventions and make it a destination for more than just gambling, he said.
“With casino gambling, it used to be Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Now you can do it everywhere,” he said. “Day-trippers are going to Philadelphia, Delaware and the Poconos. They’re not coming to Atlantic City anymore.”
On the issue of the homeless, Atlantic City’s goal, led by Officer Bill Wenz, is to get the homeless back to where they came from after making sure someone can take care of them.
“We’re going to continue to work on making it clean and safe for everyone, and that certainly has a part in the overall picture,” Dooley said, pointing to the public and private partnerships that have been set up. “Our efforts in dealing with crime and the homeless have been robust. We’re working with the state and with public and private partnerships to realize a safe environment for the visitors and residents alike.”
“It’s more of a perceived problem than it actually is. Most of the criminality in the community is committed by people who live here or are their visitors,” Southrey said Thursday. “That doesn’t mean a homeless person can’t commit a crime. But if you look at the breakdown of crimes (committed by the homeless), they are failure to appear (in court), open container and public urination. Those aren’t violent. They’re not responsible for the last 10 or 15 murders that have took place in the city. There was one, but she never came to us and she was from Philadelphia.”
Southrey said he and other local social service, public safety and government leaders have long struggled with homeless people being sent by outreach agencies based outside the city. Known as “Greyhound therapy,” the practice is the target of a bill introduced by Assemblymen John Amodeo and Chris Brown, both R-Atlantic. If enacted, the measure would require social service agencies to take certain steps — and document them as proof —to try to help homeless people before resorting to resources elsewhere. It would take effect in June 2013.
In the meantime, the Rescue Mission is pursuing a lawsuit against the Ocean County Board of Social Service. The case claims the Rescue Mission received just $105,000 during the past six years to provide more than $2 million worth of care to people on behalf of the Ocean County board, Southrey said Thursday.
Filed last summer, the lawsuit remains in the discovery phase and a date has not been set for arguments to begin.
But Southrey hopes the legal action — an unprecedented tactic — sends a message, particularly to Camden, Gloucester, Cape May, Salem, Cumberland, Burlington and Mercer county-based groups, who most often send their homeless to the Rescue Mission.
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