Controversy about the Atlantic City Rescue Mission and the resort’s growing homeless population grew last week when its board of trustees suspended its outspoken president, William Southrey.
The mission has been at the center of a debate over its location in the city’s Tourism District. It and other social service agencies, such as Sister Jean’s Kitchen near Pacific Avenue, have seen increasing pressure to restrict their outreach efforts, or to even relocate away from the state-controlled district. Efforts have also been made to move homeless individuals away from the Boardwalk and out of visitors’ sight.
John Palmieri, executive director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, explained the thinking behind relocating the mission away from the Tourism District.
“It's detrimental, I would argue, to the growth and prosperity of the district, for us succeeding in becoming an economic generator for the region,” he said.
Many hospitals, municipalities and prisons from outlying counties send or refer people to the Rescue Mission, due to its extensive housing and medical programs and the absence of similar services in their areas. Homeless from other counties are sometimes simply given bus tickets to Atlantic City with no case-management plan or even advance notice to the mission, a practice known as “Greyhound therapy.”
In the months before Southrey’s suspension, the Rescue Mission publicly announced new policies that would turn more people away from its doors, although those policies were later scaled back. Currently, the mission refers about five clients per day to the Atlantic County office building in the city for processing, rather than admitting them directly.
“They all say, ‘just say no,’” Southrey said of those opposed to the Rescue Mission’s presence in Atlantic City. “It’s very hard to say no when they’re on your doorstep.”
A growing population
The Rescue Mission has been located since 1970 on Bacharach Boulevard, adjacent to the Atlantic City Convention Center, which opened in 1997.
With 350 beds, and the capacity to house even more during weather emergencies, the Rescue Mission is the largest shelter of its kind in the state. During the landfall of Tropical Storm Irene last year, the mission sheltered 401 people. In addition to serving an average of 700 meals a day from its kitchen, the mission provides access to a medical clinic, mental health treatment and work-readiness programs.
Board members declined to comment on the reason for Southrey’s suspension. Southrey, 57, of Absecon, said he was not told the reason for the suspension and declined to speculate. He said the action began as a leave of absence and that he was later told he was suspended.
Local and state officials argue that Atlantic City unfairly shoulders the burden of South Jersey’s homeless. According to a point-in-time count conducted Jan. 25 by the Trenton-based Corporation for Supportive Housing, there were 557 homeless men, women and children in Atlantic County. That figure has steadily increased each year since 2009, when 489 were counted. The Corporation for Supportive Housing is a nonprofit that does counts for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“It’s a real volatile issue at this point,” said the Rev. John Scotland, who runs Sister Jean’s Kitchen.
“We no longer can afford to be a repository for the amount of homeless who are coming through our area,” said Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson, one of the mission’s outspoken critics.
Even Gov. Chris Christie said this summer that the presence of those served by the Rescue Mission is incompatible with revitalization efforts.
Southrey said some of the mission’s responses to increasing pressure — such as sending more new clients directly to the county office building for processing over the course of three days last month — were designed to show local officials the extent of its need. Atlantic County social workers process applications for federally funded emergency assistance, which must be approved before the mission can be reimbursed for providing shelter. Mission officials say the majority of its clients’ applications are denied.
“If we push it, it makes people mobilize in a different way, and they get mad as heck,” he said. “But what can you do? You have to make it work.”
Another factor complicating the issue is the money local governments spend on their homeless.
Since 2009, Ocean and Cape May counties have each spent more than $17 million on lodging for the homeless, while Atlantic County has spent only $2.6 million, figures from county officials show.
A similar discrepancy exists in the distribution of emergency assistance aid, which can include other expenses such as clothing, food or rental assistance, data from the state Department of Human Services show. In fiscal year 2012, Cape May County spent nearly the same amount, about $8 million, as Atlantic County. According to point-in-time counts by Corporation for Supportive Housing, Cape May County has half the amount of homeless.
Advocates for the homeless say the reason for the discrepancy is the Rescue Mission, which provides the bulk of homeless housing for Atlantic County. Cape May and Ocean counties have no such shelters and must pay for lodging each time a homeless person needs a place to sleep.
“Historically, the mission has saved neighboring counties a lot of money,” by providing lodging the county does not have to pay for, Southrey said. “The reason Atlantic County is spending less on hotel rooms is absolutely because of the mission,” he said, adding that the mission relies on emergency assistance from the county, in addition to donations.
Levinson, however, said Atlantic County doesn’t save money because of the mission.
“I imagine we would save more money if we sent all of our indigents to another county,” he said. “(The Rescue Mission) may be saving other counties money because the mission has become the depository of other counties’ homeless.”
In response to mounting pressure, the mission has sued Ocean County for diverting too many of its homeless to Atlantic City. The suit claims the number of homeless sent to the mission by Ocean County over the past six years has cost $2 million in services provided, yet the county has paid just $105,000.
Ocean County officials and attorneys declined to comment on specific allegations in the lawsuit.
“Absolutely the number of homeless is increasing every year and is directly proportional to a lousy economy,” Ocean County Administrator Carl W. Block said. “Right now, we believe we’re serving the need through temporary rentals and hotel rooms,” he said.
In July, 334 families in Ocean County received emergency assistance for housing, a nearly 5 percent increase over the same month the previous year, according to the most recent report by the state Department of Human Services.
Atlantic County, in comparison, had 332 families receive emergency assistance for housing in July, nearly 16 percent less than the previous year. Cape May County had 85, a 53 percent decrease. Cumberland County had 30 families, a 23 percent decrease.
Cape May County Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton said the county has made no moves toward building a shelter because it has not been approached by a nonprofit organization to assist it. The county will not do it on its own.
“If we build a shelter, it would have to be similar to the (rescue) mission and would have to be a nonprofit agency and not county-sanctioned,” Thornton said.
But Laurie Johnson, director of Family Promise in Cape May County, said she doesn’t believe there’s a will to build a shelter.
“If you build a shelter, then you have a homeless problem, and who wants to come to a resort area with homeless here?” She said. “When it’s disguised, you don’t have to do anything.”
Levinson said Atlantic County scrutinizes applications for emergency assistance given the area’s reputation as a magnet for the desperate.
“We take a very good look at eligibility, and we make sure that those that are in need receive it,” he said. “Anyone who comes down here looking for a handout ... they’re in for a rude awakening.”
Southrey said that diligence means the mission isn’t reimbursed for many of the clients it shelters. That has contributed to a shortfall of more than $500,000 on the nonprofit’s Form 990 tax returns in 2010, the most recent year available.
The cost to house and feed a resident, the Rescue Mission estimates, is about $40 per day. The mission typically receives about $35 in reimbursement from emergency assistance.
Beyond the lack of resources for the homeless and the growing demand for assistance due to the recession, advocates say the homeless have faced increased scrutiny since the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority took control of Atlantic City’s tourism areas.
The CRDA’s “clean and safe” initiative has stationed ambassadors wearing neon yellow shirts and hats along the Boardwalk to assist visitors and head off potential problems. Atlantic City police, meanwhile, have officers dedicated to patrolling the Boardwalk, referring the homeless to service agencies and arresting those who cause a disturbance.
Palmieri said CRDA’s goal is to perform regular sweeps above and below the Boardwalk.
“I know there have been people who historically have lived and been able to reside without much interference below the boards of the Boardwalk,” he said. “That no longer is the case.”
Scotland said he’s received reports of people, even those who aren’t homeless, being rousted from known hangouts. He said the homeless are being blamed by some for all of the city’s ills.
“I don’t talk to homeless people every day, but the ones I have talked to have noticed an increase in harassment,” he said. “They’re made to feel that they’re not welcome.”
In an interview a week before his suspension, Southrey said he was trying to compromise where he could. But in response to increasing controversy, he had also taken to using his smartphone — the same device he uses to translate the words of non-English speaking clients — to record conversations with the media and politicians.
After dedicating more than 30 years to the homeless, he said it’s disheartening to have his organization’s work derided by the same people who once praised it.
“It’s damn frustrating,” said Southrey. “You’re trying to help someone, and they call it evil.”
Amid all of the recent setbacks, however, Southrey said he wanted to keep the mission going after his departure.
“You see someone in need, you want to respond,” he said.
Staff writers Jennifer Bogdan and Hoa Nguyen contributed to this report.
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