Society’s larger problems — high unemployment, scarce affordable housing, domestic violence, deficient mental-health and veterans-support networks — intersect at the Atlantic City Rescue Mission.
Those who end up at the mission’s four-story building off Bacharach Boulevard have suffered violence and violations of all kinds, and they arrive having unique obstacles to overcome.
“It’s never just one thing,” said Debbi Giacomoni, a soft-spoken woman of 60, whose voice takes on a driving cadence when she speaks of her clients. “Homelessness is almost a byproduct of all the other things that happen in a person’s life.”
“When I first came here 16 years ago, it was a steep, steep learning curve,” said Giacomoni, who left a job at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center’s City Campus to work as director of women’s ministries. Although she held a similar position at AtlantiCare, she said the homeless present a unique set of challenges that took years to comprehend.
She said long-held stereotypes about the homeless reflect broad issues, but they don’t capture the scope of what’s really going on.
“It is true there are people with very severe mental-health and substance-abuse issues, but there are other aspects,” she said.
For every gambling addict down on their luck and every Vietnam vet suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, there’s a mother struggling to keep a roof over her children’s heads or an elderly person who lost a spouse and safety net.
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Porsche Stuckman, at only 25, bears the scars of life on Atlantic City’s streets.
Standing in the shade of one of the maple trees that line Bacharach Boulevard, she speaks in staccato rhythm of her five years out here. Drawn by siblings’ promises of high-paying casino jobs and a stable home, she departed Philadelphia and a for-profit business college that left her with $1,000 in student-loan debt.
The opportunities, however, never materialized, and she was soon on her own. Twice she was stabbed in retribution over disputes involving family members. She’s watched friends get killed on the streets, and she’s resorted to “hustles” for survival. “Everything you can say I did, I did to make money,” she said.
Stuckman is “back to round one again.” Round one means another two-month stay at the Rescue Mission. Another chance to turn around a life that’s taken her to a place she never thought she would be.
“I’m depressed,” she said. “The only reason I’m depressed is I’m in the same situation over and over. I can’t blame anyone else, but I’m depressed because I don’t have anything. I’m angry because I know what I have to do and don’t do it.”
Raised by grandparents and the state Division of Youth and Family Services after her mother died when she was 1 year old, Stuckman said she was on the right path once. She wants to get back there. She wants to return to school and to “be on my B.I.,” or business.
For motivation, she keeps a cellphone photo that she took while walking the streets, of a disheveled woman picking items out of a trash bin.
“I look at her picture in my phone, and I see that,” Stuckman said. “I don’t want to be that.”
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At the mission, the first point of contact for new arrivals is an intake officer, typically a chaplain for men or a counselor for women. They record basic information about the person’s identity and medical history that will help develop a case-management plan.
From there, Giacomoni said, a lot of things happen quickly.
“It’s a triage of what’s going on right this minute,” she said. If they’re under the influence, do they need to be detoxed? If they’re under serious mental or physical duress, do they need to go to the hospital? If they came from out of the area, is transport back home feasible?
Barring any serious emergencies, the next step is usually a medical evaluation.
“Almost everyone has something: high blood pressure, diabetes, cellulitis,” Giacomoni said. “They’ve picked up cancer or other life-threatening illnesses.”
Establishing identity can present challenges of its own, since few of the homeless have driver’s licenses, birth certificates or Social Security cards on their person. To obtain services, they may need these important documents.
“It’s four to six weeks for a birth certificate if you don’t want to do online stuff, which quadruples the price,” she said. “Sometimes you’re in a holding pattern while you’re waiting for those things.”
From there, the programs offered depend greatly on the needs of the client and the available funding. The mission offers programs for addiction and mental illness, for families in need of shelter, for individuals in need of work.
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Carlos Figueroa stands a few feet from Stuckman, waiting for the 5 p.m. meal at the mission. He smiles as he talks about his life, but his hands wander, as if he doesn’t quite know what to do with them. They alternate from hanging limply at his side to being clasped in front of him.
The 40-year-old mechanic said he’s finally free of a cocaine addiction that took hold in his youth.
“I wanted to be cool, like everyone else doing it,” he said. “And all of the sudden it became a habit. It was not good. It was slavery.”
For more than a decade, Figueroa said, he did what he had to do — “work and steal and do whatever” — to feed the habit. He managed to hold down jobs and keep his family together, but the habit was consuming his life. Most recently, he was living in his mother-in-law’s Mays Landing home.
“It’s a headache,” he said of his life in Mays Landing. “When you’re doing wrong, it’s a headache, but when you’re doing right, it’s not so bad.”
But life is getting better.
With the help of the Rescue Mission, Figueroa said, he’s clean and holding down a job at the Atlantic City Convention Center, setting up stages and other equipment. He’s preparing to move into a one-bedroom apartment in Ventnor he arranged through a network of co-workers. And he’s working to stay in the lives of his two young children, Carlitos and Tatiana.
“We are all together,” he said, “but I had to take care of me first, so I could take care of them.”
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William Southrey, the Rescue Mission’s recently suspended president and CEO, said the goal is not to make every client like him, but to give them the tools to make it on their own. That can be a long, arduous process, he said.
Beyond the mental and physical health elements, Southrey said, there’s also a societal aspect to the mission’s work. Many of the programs are designed to teach clients basic life and work skills.
“If you’re on the street, your language is going to be pretty rough,” he said. “You try to say, ‘Speak a little more softly, a little more cogently, you can be a little gentler.’”
Likewise, the work-readiness programs emphasize punctuality and personal responsibility.
“If you’re supposed to be there at 9 o’clock, you should punch in at 9 o’clock,” he said. “If you don’t, you’ve lost 15 minutes of your time and they’re going to penalize you.”
Giacomoni said a stay at the mission means abiding by a curfew, setting up a savings account and — for those admitted into long-term programs — visiting the chapel twice daily.
While mission officials say it’s difficult to measure the average length of a client’s stay, 97 people residing at the shelter Sept. 10 were in programs designed for three months or longer, 15 were on seven- to 10-day medical holds and another 312 were transient.
Giacomoni said the length of stay depends largely on the individual. While clients need to qualify for emergency assistance before entering the long-term programs, the mission’s reimbursement for services doesn’t factor into who’s given a bed and who isn’t.
The process is complicated by the lack of affordable housing and funding down the line. Giacomoni said placing clients once they’ve completed programs is just as difficult as getting them through the programs. Clients who are ready to take the next step often find little or no assistance outside the mission’s walls.
Those who sign up for Section 8 housing vouchers, for instance, can wait five years or more before their names come up, Giacomoni said. Waiting five years at the mission isn’t a feasible option.
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Home for Tim Hunt is a two-bedroom house nestled down a back alley in the city’s Chelsea Heights neighborhood.
From the outside, the old building doesn’t look like much, but inside the carpets are clean and the furniture is neat. The kitchen is uncluttered, and plastic ficus — their leaves free from dust — are in one corner. Every morning, Hunt reads from a Bible he keeps on the post at the bottom of the stairs.
As orderly as his home is today, Hunt said his life was in shambles four years ago. Addictions to alcohol, heroin and other opiates had strained his family life and caused his father’s Linwood tiling business to fall apart. After eight separate stints in rehab and a suicide attempt, he was referred to the mission.
“I didn’t expect to do much when I first came,” he said. “I thought it was just food and a bed; I didn’t know of any programs.”
Hunt said he dabbled in many of the different programs, but it was difficult to commit. But the staff didn’t give up on him. Every time he relapsed, he would return to the program. Beyond the urge to use, he said, was the restlessness of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
“I was getting into a little trouble,” he said. “Bill Southrey said maybe he could get me involved in maintenance, keep me occupied. I must have tiled half the mission.”
Eventually, Hunt was placed in a shared-living facility in Absecon, was hired by the mission as a maintenance supervisor and, nearly two years ago, moved out on his own, sharing the house with another former client who also works at the mission.
“In the beginning, there was a lot of fear,” he said. “Could I make it on my own, with the expenses? The mission gets to be a safe haven, but I had lived alone before. I’m 52 — how much longer could I stay?”
Today, Hunt tries to impart some of his experience on the mission residents who work alongside him as part of their respective programs. He works every day from 6 a.m. to 6 or 7 p.m.
“I won’t go home if something isn’t done,” he said. “I won’t sleep at night unless everything’s done.”
While he hadn’t planned to continue on at the mission, Hunt said he feels a duty to help others in the same way the mission helped him.
“I was raised in a giving family,” he said. “Drugs took that away from me, and they gave me an opportunity to get some of that back.”
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Defining success amid so much need can be a difficult task for the mission’s staff.
A number of clients, such as Hunt, have resumed healthy, active lives after completing programs in Atlantic City. About a half-dozen former clients are employed by the mission, and many others have been placed in jobs in the area. One man, used prominently in the mission’s advertising, now works at Revel.
But between a dysfunctional social safety net and personal obstacles clients bring with them, Giacomoni said some people inevitably come back again and again.
Some run up against the nationwide shortage of affordable housing. Others run out of benefits and end up going off medication. Addicts, who already face a difficult road to recovery, have an even harder time when they have no home or family to return to. There’s also a small segment of the homeless who drift from state to state via buses and freight trains and hitchhiked rides.
“Success is measured in all kinds of ways,” Giacomoni said. “It could be something simple like getting someone the clothes they need, or something dramatic, like finding them an apartment.”
Southrey said it’s a difficult process for the people the mission helps. But every bit of progress is worthwhile, no matter how long it takes.
“Most people say, ‘I’m only going to give you three strikes and you’re out,’” he said. “I want to play the whole nine innings.”
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