A Galloway teen is working to raise awareness among his peers and neighbors about the causes of homelessness.

Vincent Licolli Jr., 15, of the Smithville section of Galloway Township, was looking for a service project to enable him to earn his Eagle Scout award when a neighbor suggested he do something to help the homeless at the Atlantic City Rescue Mission. Licolli said his experience with homeless people previously had been limited to seeing a panhandler on a New York City street. But when he followed outreach chaplain Mark Angler to Atlantic City bus and train stations and under the Boardwalk, he said, he learned that homelessness can happen to anyone.

"A lot of people have prejudices - they think homeless people are too lazy or they want to live off the government. But that's not the case at all," Licolli said. "Once I got to know them, I found out they're people just like us. A lot of them are really nice. They just need help. I heard their stories and I thought, 'That could be me.'"

Angler said the people he works with every day have lost their homes for a variety of reasons.

"I don't know that there is a usual cause," Angler said. "Some have mental breakdowns or emotional breakdowns. Some had good jobs in the past, but alcohol has taken over, or gambling has taken over or drugs ruined them."

"But we also have people at the mission because they're working, but their income is too low and the cost of housing is too high. We have people who are mentally ill, or seniors with health problems whose medical costs have gone up but their check has not, and that puts them out the door. Some people get sick, and they can't afford medicine and housing both."

Angler said state law mandates psychiatric help only for individuals who are deemed a danger to themselves or others. It does not provide for instances in which people are unable to understand that they will freeze to death without a coat, or lack the mental awareness to avoid walking into the street and being hit by a car. That's why Angler spends his days seeking them out and trying to convince them to come to the Rescue Mission or connecting them to other service agencies.

Then there are those who can't afford the psychiatric medication they need to function normally.

"The problem with mental illness is when you're on (medication), you feel all right and you think you don't need to take it anymore," Angler said.

For Licolli and his father, who accompanied him for safety reasons, meeting men who are homeless because they have a drinking problem or are mentally unfit was a sobering lesson. They learned that men with mental illness often are left to deal with their issues alone, and the public is less sympathetic toward men, because men are expected to be more independent, they said.

They wanted to share what they had learned with others.

Licolli prepared a presentation for his Scout troop and the peer mediation group at his high school, and set out clothing collection boxes in his neighborhood. He asked for warm clothing, gloves and hats for men, because those things often are harder to find.

"Women and children are a soft spot for a lot of people. They're always in the limelight. But men sort of get swept under the carpet," Vincent Licolli Sr. said. "With women, fashion changes. Children grow. But men tend to get more use out of their clothes and hold on to them till they're worn out, so it's harder to find good quality clothes for men."

Licolli collected 20 bags of clothing, which his troop helped him sort for delivery to the Rescue Mission. He said he plans to continue periodic visits to the Rescue Mission to lend help and he will continue his efforts to raise awareness among his friends and encourage them to help in any way they can.

Contact Felicia Compian:

609-272-7209

How to help

In 2009, the Rescue Mission helped 214,000 men and 642 women.

n 13,763 people were fed through its bread basket program, which provides a voucher for three meals a day

n 4,386 people were treated at the medical clinic

n 249 families and 698 individuals were helped by the homeless prevention program

This was accomplished with a budget of $541,000. To learn more or to get involved, see www.acrescuemission.org or call 609-345-5517.

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