The suspension of Bill Southrey as the executive director of the Atlantic City Rescue Mission is not just a personnel action - it is an attack on the poor and homeless in Atlantic City. It is especially unfortunate that, this time, the attack came from the inside, from the board of trustees.
The political machine running the state of New Jersey and Atlantic County is breathing a sigh of relief today. The thorn in their side, the one who reminded them that poor people exist, and even live in Atlantic City, has been taken out. Pinky Kravitz's comment that the Rescue Mission ought to have someone more amenable to the community in charge echoes this belief.
Atlantic City is trying to reinvent itself without poor people. Gov. Chris Christie created the state Tourism District in Atlantic City, and the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority has been trying to engineer the disappearance of the poor in this city to encourage tourists and gamblers to feel safe to come visit and spend their money. The daytime murder of two tourists by a schizophrenic homeless woman last spring (who had never been to the mission for assistance at any time) only heightened this concern and caused a more public debate.
As a result, the Rescue Mission, an institution that loves and cares for the poor, the disenfranchised and the homeless has been directly under attack by political leaders who want the homeless just to disappear.
It seems to me that the board of the Rescue Mission panicked because of political pressure. But whatever internal battles existed should have been put on hold for the sake of the people being served, and until the larger issues with the state and the county were resolved.
Although I have not spent a lot of time at the Rescue Mission, I recall last spring walking next to Southrey as we passed by clients.
We walked very slowly because the clients of the Rescue Mission either kept coming up to him to hug him and thank him for what he, personally, had done for them, or he stopped to ask them about their very specific concerns.
He appeared to know everyone by name or by situation. Several individuals stated categorically to me, while pointing at Bill, "This man saved my life!"
While the Rescue Mission has many dedicated and devoted workers, Bill Southrey is a unique individual because he leads by example - and loves and respects those people whom he serves.
If he is permanently removed, it seems it will be only a matter of time before the Rescue Mission closes its doors. And what will happen to the poor and the homeless of Atlantic City? One can only imagine.