Pastor Steve Brigham said he has watched for years as Ocean County gave homeless people one-way bus tickets to Atlantic City.
Once the homeless reach the city, they typically end up at the Atlantic City Rescue Mission. Many ultimately return to Ocean County, he said.
When Gov. Chris Christie spoke on Long Beach Island last month, he said it isn’t fair and it isn’t right that other counties send their homeless to Atlantic City.
“We found Ocean County was sending upwards of 100 people a year,” Rescue Mission President Bill Southrey said. “They didn’t do the proper referrals with slips, they would just send them with one-way bus tickets. This has been going on for years.”
The Rescue Mission filed a lawsuit against the Ocean County Board of Social Services last summer over the number of homeless people it alleges were being sent south.
Ocean County had an agreement with the mission to send 15 people a year because it costs $1,000 a month to care for someone, Southrey said. Ocean County gave the Rescue Mission $105,000 over six years to provide more than $2 million worth of care to the homeless sent to Atlantic City by the Ocean County Board of Social Services, the lawsuit alleges.
The county used to compensate the Rescue Mission $25,000 annually, but that amount was lowered to $17,500 per year.
Ocean County Administrator Carl Block said that although millions are spent on the county’s homeless, there is no county-sponsored shelter.
He said he had no personal knowledge of bus tickets being purchased.
“I don’t sign off on bus tickets purchased for the homeless, but I’ve heard that it is done,” Block said.
Brigham said many people end up back in the woods of Ocean County.
Since 2005, Brigham has worked to give Ocean County’s homeless some respite, in the form of a ministry and makeshift village called “Tent City” in the woods of Lakewood Township. About 80 people live in the encampment off Cedar Bridge Road.
Earlier this year, the village was faced with the possibility of disappearing, but an Ocean County Superior Court judge ruled the homeless could stay there — for now.
About 10 percent of the residents at Tent City have been to Atlantic City, and return with nowhere else to go, Brigham said.
“I’ve been down to the Rescue Mission during the wintertime, and with the economy the way it is, the Rescue Mission is packed to capacity,” Brigham said.
He said Ocean County is shirking its responsibility to the homeless by sending them south, and the lawsuit is warranted.
Southrey said he’s spoken with Ocean County Freeholder Gerry Little at least three times about establishing a facility in Ocean County, to no avail.
Ocean County officials and service providers to the homeless acknowledge the one-way bus tickets that are bought for individuals, but Ocean County officials say the Atlantic City Rescue Mission advertises that it serves homeless from the county to the north.
“That’s the piece that people are missing. If there were places in communities that were similar to the mission they wouldn’t be winding up in one area. We don’t want to become the biggest provider of services unless we have to,” Southrey said.
According to a January public report on Ocean County’s response to homelessness, the issue facing the county is the number of “unsheltered homeless,” that are found living under bridges, on streets and in the woods.
Ocean County’s unsheltered homeless account for 3 percent of the state’s total unsheltered homeless population, the report states.
This year, the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders is allocating $20 million to the Board of Social Services and $60 million for more than 60 programs to serve more than 113,000 of the county’s residents, including low-income families and senior citizens.
“The policy is that the homeless are put through a formal process. We fund programs throughout the county, and there is a large effort made with multiple agencies to assist them,” Block said.
There is no reason why one of the largest and wealthiest counties in the state with a documented homeless problem shouldn’t have a shelter, Brigham said.
“The system is archaic. The county wants the rich and middle class to come into their community with big houses, but they don’t want to take care of the needy,” he said.
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