The board of the Atlantic City Rescue Mission gave its suspended executive director two choices Monday night, neither of which involved keeping his job.
The Board of Trustees, in a meeting that was not open to the public, offered William Southrey two severance options that would not allow him to work for the mission in his current position, Southrey said in a phone interview at 11:45 p.m.
Southrey said he did not make a decision Monday night. He declined additional comment, saying he needed to discuss his options with an attorney.
Chairman Bob Stahler declined to comment on the board’s decision until he discussed it with Southrey today.
The board deliberated Southrey’s future behind closed doors for more than four hours Monday as a group of supporters rallied outside the mission on Bacharach Boulevard.
Southrey, who has served the Rescue Mission for more than 30 years, was suspended last month amid mounting pressure from casino officials and politicians concerned about the city’s large homeless population. Board officials have not given Southrey a reason for the suspension.
About 10:15 p.m., Stahler announced that the board would not be issuing a statement, then returned to the meeting.
Southrey, after being called into the room the first of several times, said the board had offered him one year’s severance pay. He said he offered to serve the mission in some other capacity, but the board had not given him a response to that offer.
“I’m not looking to retire and get rich on the money of the mission,” Southrey said, sitting on a leather couch inside a vacant lecture hall at the mission’s educational center. “I want something fair and equitable.”
Nearly 30 supporters gathered outside the building starting at 6 p.m. They chanted “We love the mission, we love Bill” and “God be with you on your decision” as board members and other mission officials arrived for the 7 p.m. meeting, many of them entering through a back door.
“There are protections for Bill,” said the mission’s chief operating officer, Daniel Brown, who declined to comment further.
The supporters included churchgoers, mental health advocates and clients whom Southrey had helped.
Tom Papademetriou, who helped organize the rally, has known Southrey for several years as a member of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Egg Harbor Township. Many of the demonstrators attend church with Southrey.
“He’s someone that I see serves the poor,” Papademetriou said. “He is a selfless person. ... He’s very inspirational, and he offers an example as a Christian.”
Debra Silver, president of the Atlantic and Cape May counties chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Health, said she attended the rally because she worries about the mission’s future. Over the past 25 years, she said she has referred many people to the mission.
“This Rescue Mission has saved so many people,” she said. “There’s no place else for these people to go. It’s not like Longport or Haddonfield or Linwood’s going to take them.”
Many clients of the mission joined the supporters outside, chanting and speaking with Southrey between his times spent in front of the board.
Joseph Killian, 29, said Southrey was the reason he stayed at the mission when he was on the verge of leaving a program and returning to the streets. Killian had lived in the city’s Chelsea Heights neighborhood before he was forced into the shelter after a breakup.
“I got as far as that corner down there when (Southrey) drove by, pulled up beside me and stopped me,” he said. Southrey asked Killian why he was leaving and encouraged him to stay.
Southrey, Killian said, demonstrates true compassion for the people he helps.
“With Bill, there’s an open invitation to work with you,” he said. “He’ll spend the last five minutes to make sure you’re OK.”
Atlantic City resident Daniel Smith met Southrey when he first went to the Rescue Mission at age 12. Now 42 with a 7-year-old daughter, Smith said Southrey has done more for Atlantic City than anyone else.
Smith stayed in the reception area with Southrey’s wife for most of the night, waiting for a decision.
“I’m not going to say no one else can take over, but they should at least allow the man to finish what he started and train a successor,” he said.
With so much pressure coming down from local and state officials, Smith said he worries for the future of the mission.
“If they move this off shore, it’s not going to take the homeless with it,” he said.
The long periods spent sitting outside the meeting room, the sound of heated debate occasionally filtering through the walls of the building, were awkward, Southrey said.
“Perhaps it’ll be a relief,” he said. “There are other things I want to be a part of.”
While on suspension, Southrey said he’s continued helping homeless he comes across find apartments and other resources. He’s also on the board of Emmaus House in Harlem, N.Y. He still hopes to see the Atlantic City model of rescue mission, which incorporates medical and mental health services into a traditional food-and-shelter mission, replicated elsewhere.
“I will always be an advocate,” he said.
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