ATLANTIC CITY - As the state determines what will be included in the new Tourism District, there's a human element officials would like to see excluded: the homeless.
Susan Ney Thompson, interim executive director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, said the city's issues with the homeless are a "high priority" for the agency managing the district.
"Atlantic City is doing more than its fair share," Thompson said. "There's absolutely no doubt about it. Of course we need to be compassionate and humanitarian, but we need to start establishing less of a tolerance of that environment here."
Thompson outlined three strategies to reduce the homeless population in Atlantic City:
- Expanding a fund to reconnect vagrants with their families
- Reassessing traditional sweeps under the Boardwalk
- Demolishing more abandoned buildings
The CRDA is preparing to hire a consultant who would focus solely on designing a comprehensive network of services for the area's homeless, said Greater Atlantic City Chamber member George Lynn, who volunteered to coordinate efforts to address the issue.
"There are a lot of doors you can go through if you're homeless," Lynn said, referring to those who are mentally ill, abused or financially strapped. "What you want to have behind those doors is a network of services that is integrated."
As the CRDA prepares to craft a master plan for its new Tourism District, Lynn says addressing the city's homeless issue should be "chapter one."
"You can't approach that master plan without doing something about this issue," he said. "We have failed as a community to come up with a systemic solution, one that deals with the breadth and depth of the issue."
The Atlantic City Rescue Mission is the hub for managing the region's poor, displaced and mentally ill. And neighboring communities have taken advantage of the facility.
"The whole system sucks," executive director of the Atlantic City Rescue Mission Bill Southrey said . "People come to us unannounced. We just resource the best we can."
One of the resources the mission struggles to maintain is its Traveler's Assistance Program, designed to cover transportation costs to help reunite a vagrant with his or her family or a support group. Travel can range from a bus ride to North Jersey to airplane flights to Taiwan.
Southrey said the mission generally spends about $25,000 to $30,000 on those transportation costs annually, whatever money is leftover in a tight budget.
"We try to get them back, but it's hard to do that when you don't have the money," he said.
Thompson has proposed tripling the program's funding to intensify relocation efforts and diminish the city's homeless population. She later said the CRDA likely would be prepared to dedicate about $100,000 to the efforts.
"We need to get them back before they get embedded," Thompson said. "They need to get back home."
Many of the city's homeless take shelter under the famed Atlantic City Boardwalk, a major inconvenience for the CRDA as it looks to make the walkway the central focus of the Tourism District.
The Atlantic City Special Improvement District and local public safety officials conducted about 150 sweeps beneath the Boardwalk last year, offering support services to each individual they discovered. While Thompson seemed content with the number of sweeps, she said the efforts focused on high-traffic areas, which simply pushed vagrants to the north and south ends of the Boardwalk.
"We need to cover the entire Boardwalk," she said.
The SID will soon become a division of the CRDA, making the new sweep tactics easier to implement. Thompson also said the authority is looking into removing some sand from under the Boardwalk to enhance visibility and make the stay less inviting for a homeless person.
Atlantic City's abandoned buildings also make inviting temporary homes for vagrants.
Thompson said CRDA officials have discussed financially assisting Atlantic City's demolition efforts and expanding its own South Inlet Demolition Program citywide. Mayor Lorenzo Langford's administration has been outspoken about its intentions to be aggressive with abandoned local properties.
Last June, the mayor solicited public input to identify the resort's Top 10 eyesores. And the city has already moved to intensify its demolition program. Last year, City Council amended an ordinance to allow local government to start demolition proceedings six months after a property has been declared vacant.
"It was like a dog chasing his tail," Cox said about the old process. "Building owners would come in and do just enough (to comply with the city) and then go another two years without doing anything."
As a result, Cox said demolition hearings are up 120 percent in Atlantic City. And while the city's previous demolition budget of about $500,000 was enough before the ordinance changes, Cox said the CRDA's financial assistance is more than welcome.
The authority also offered to provide an on-call engineer to assist the city's depleted Engineer's Division as it takes on the increasing workload.
Succeeding with compassion
The CRDA's planned initiatives appear moderate when compared with past tactics in other tourist destinations. Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Guiliani took a hard line when it came to the city's homeless, dispatching police to arrest and relocate derelicts, curtailing city services for homeless people and serving eviction notices to facilities that catered to them.
While the authority's plans pale in comparison, Southrey said he is concerned with some of the rhetoric he's heard recently from the Greater Atlantic City Chamber.
"I've heard terms from the Chamber like ‘zero tolerance,'" Southrey said. "Now that could mean we'll have a zero tolerance when it comes to not providing these people with the care they need, but I doubt that's what they mean."
Southrey said he didn't have exact details of the chamber's discussions because he was not invited to be a part of them.
"If the business community is making decisions and pushing an agenda, then I have concerns with that," he added.
But it was the chamber that connected the CRDA to the rescue mission. Lynn, an official with the chamber, reached out to Southrey to start discussions between the two organizations.
Lynn said there should be a "zero tolerance" in the Tourism District concerning issues such as panhandling. He later expounded on his statements, as well as the chamber's.
"The people who speak about the zero tolerance, what they're trying to say is ... there are better solutions than living under the Boardwalk. There are better solutions than making money by panhandling," he said. "We can help present those options through this new network of services.
"This is such a complex issue and I suspect there will be some controversy. But nothing's happened yet. I think any concerns now are premature."
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