On an eighth-grade field trip to New York, Bill Southrey snapped a Polaroid of a man lying on a bench outside the United Nations Headquarters.
Back home, his father explained that some people have no place to live. That’s why they sleep on the street. They deserve our kindness, he said.
“That stuck with me,” says Southrey, an advocate for Atlantic City’s poor known equally for his compassion and his withering candor.
He kept that tattered photo in his wallet until two years ago, when Parkinson’s disease made it difficult to extricate the leather billfold from his pocket. Now, the 59-year-old jokes about carrying around a “man purse.”
Last fall, after an escalating series of exchanges with local officials, Southrey was terminated as head of the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, where he had worked for 32 years.
That hasn’t stopped Southrey from helping others. He’s turned his energy to working for Haven, a nonprofit that provides affordable housing for victims of domestic violence.
It came after months of scrutiny over the city’s large homeless population. That May, a dispossessed Philadelphia woman was arrested for allegedly stabbing two Canadian tourists to death. In July, Gov. Chris Christie made a speech in which he said the homeless were contributing to crime in the city, hindering revitalization efforts.
Local officials resurrected a long-discussed plan to relocate social services away from the Tourism District. Although Southrey supported the effort, he objected publicly to the rhetoric.
“The homeless are not a problem,” he says. “They’re people who have problems.”
In the midst of dealing with the usual influx of summer transients and managing the fatigue and tremors of the degenerative disease he’d been diagnosed with five years ago, Southrey had to field criticism from politicians and calls from the media. Last summer, he started recording conversations on his iPhone. He called in to radio shows, led TV reporters on tours and assigned a mission staffer to “government relations.”
“All those things hit you at the same time,” Southrey says. “It sort of fried my neurons.”
And then it all stopped.
A neighbor’s example
Growing up, Southrey’s parents helped friends and family who were down on their luck, offering them a place to stay. Occasionally he did the same, but he didn’t give the homeless much thought until 1980, when he and his wife, Debra, moved in n0ext door to Rex Whiteman.
Their seemingly clean-cut Absecon neighbor kept odd hours, the young couple noticed.
“He had this van and he’d go out every night at six o’clock; then he’d wake me up again at 4 a.m,” Southrey recalls. “I thought: either he’s doing something wonderful or something illegal. I can’t figure out which.”
The couple — they went to prom together after Southrey’s friend ditched Debra — knew nothing about the mission.
“We thought it was a rescue squad — that he had a bunch of ambulances,” says Debra, who at 59 is soft-spoken and self-deprecating.
After some cajoling by Whiteman, Southrey volunteered and, a year later, he was offered a job. Taking it meant quitting a cushy job as a lab technician at the Lenox factory to help people through their bleakest days.
At first, Debra said “no.”
“But a few weeks later, she said, ‘I think you should take it,’” Southrey recalls. “So, I took a pay cut and went to the mission.”
Back then, the mission was a squat building that could accommodate about 60 people each night. With so little space, particularly for women and children, Southrey regularly brought people — sometimes eight at a time — home.
“Our bedroom was one side of the house, bathroom on the other, and I’m nine months pregnant walking over people,” Debra remembers, with a laugh.
Although the Southreys’ children were also at home, they never worried about safety. Bill would bring people home at night and return with them in the morning.
“It was a different time; maybe we were more trusting,” Debra says. “And I knew he’d never bring home anybody he didn’t feel needed help.”
As a champion for the poor, Southrey rarely hesitated to make his thoughts known. Once, he interrupted his own pastor’s sermon to defend people on welfare. On another occasion, he confronted former Revel CEO Kevin DeSanctis.
“We’re both kind of beggars,” he recalls telling DeSanctis at one meeting prior to the $2.4 billion megaresort’s opening. “You’re trying to build a business for economic improvement and I’m trying to maintain an agency to improve people’s lives.”
Keeping in touch
Southrey, who rose through the ranks to become mission president in 1999, developed long-standing relationships with the people he helped. He was on a first-name basis with many of them, helping to find jobs in the community and visiting once they found homes of their own.
Daniel Smith first met Southrey at age 12, when he and his mother were at the mission. He slept in an office while his mother was in a warehouse next door.
“I was beginning to become wild, adventurous, wanting to do things on my own,” he remembers. “He’d sit down with me and talk, give me chores to do. He was the type of person you could look into his eyes and hear him speak and you’d feel comforted by his words.”
Southrey invited Smith to his house for dinner and to swim in his pool. When Smith’s mother died in 1991, Southrey counseled him through the grief. He encouraged the younger man to volunteer and eventually hired him as an administrative assistant.
“Bill, go home, please,” Smith would say to Southrey on his way home late at night.
“No, kiddo,” Southrey would reply. “I have work to do.”
Now, the 43-year-old’s daughter calls Southrey “Uncle Bill.”
“He’s like an unrelated pop to me,” Smith says.
Life with Southrey has never been ordinary. Ten- and 12-hour days were the norm, particularly as the mission expanded. (It currently boasts 350 beds, and can shelter more during emergencies.) He volunteered to work the holidays. But he also had the flexibility to take off to accompany his three children on school trips.
“It wasn’t like he was an attorney who worked 8-to-4, came home every night and played golf,” Debra says. “But he started young, so this was normal for us.”
That work ethic continued even after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. He ignored the tremors in his right arm for some six months before seeking treatment. His handwriting became small and illegible. Like most people, Southrey says, he’s prone to putting such things off. When his doctor diagnosed the neurological disorder, he sought second opinions. They all agreed.
“I was kind of bummed,” Southrey deadpans.
Debra, a nurse at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center’s City Campus, said there’s little to be done but wait for symptoms to arise and then treat them. It’s impossible to predict the future, but the progression has slowed. As long as he takes the medications on schedule, the symptoms are mild.
One of the drugs, Requip, comes with an interesting side effect. When Southrey’s doctors prescribed the drug, which causes the brain’s reward and pleasure centers to release more dopamine to help control movement, they warned that many patients develop obsessive compulsive behaviors — among them gambling and sex addiction.
“I’m in the perfect place for that,” Southrey jokes. “Don’t you agree?”
Southrey’s new obsession is strewn across his basement workshop: laptops, VCRs, cameras in various states of assembly. He picks up slightly battered computers, repairs them and gives them away. In the last year, he’s tinkered with more than a dozen of them.
“It’s better than the alternatives,” he quips.
His fingers are always skittering across his iPhone and, late at night, Southrey sits down in front of video games when he can’t sleep: Call of Duty Black Ops, Lost World, Ace Commander.
“It keeps my brain going and helps my coordination,” he says. “And if I get angry, I can always blow something up.”
But Southrey is hardly trifling away his years in retirement.
This winter he took over as executive director of Haven, a nonprofit that offers affordable housing for victims of domestic violence. It operates out of a nondescript building in Atlantic City’s Tourism District.
Haven is significantly smaller than the Rescue Mission and, for now, Southrey works for free. Its most recent IRS form 990 tax return listed nearly $20,000 in revenue — mostly from the rents — against $1,700 in expenses.
“It’s not entirely different,” Southrey says, walking through one of its recently renovated units. “It’s just smaller with different types of management issues.”
Indeed, Southrey used to refer some of the mission’s clients to Haven after stints in its family program.
Now, he’s working to expand the operation beyond its 14 apartments in order to meet a growing need. The nonprofit owns two nearby parcels, both in the district, which could be developed.
The goal could again put Southrey in conflict with local and state authorities, who in recent decades have torn down whole neighborhoods and are still working out plans to remove social services from the district.
“I guess being in this area will be a problem,” he says, nonchalantly. “This may be an interesting challenge.”
But it’s a challenge Southrey says he’s prepared for.
“I’m not ready to throw in the towel and retire at this point,” he says. “I am tired. If it was retirement, I’d just be getting tired for the second time.”
Contact Wallace McKelvey:
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