Homeless people will no longer be able to go directly to the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, meaning more of them will likely stay on the city’s streets.
Starting Monday, the mission will turn over most case management decisions to county social workers, Rescue Mission President Bill Southrey said. All new arrivals will be referred to the Atlantic County Office Building on Atlantic Avenue, nearly a mile away, before they can be admitted to the shelter.
“We’ll just send everyone to them first, let them bump them back to us and we’ll determine what we do,” Southrey said. “If we have a bed available, somebody will be in it, but we want the county to be the ones to make that decision.”
The change comes after months of increased scrutiny of Atlantic City’s homeless population. Calls to remove social services from the city, including the rescue mission, were renewed in May following the slaying of two tourists, allegedly by a homeless Philadelphia woman. Even Gov. Chris Christie has spoken out, calling the homeless an impediment to revitalization efforts.
But Southrey said the mission has largely been excluded from discussions. The procedure change, he said, was a means of forcing local officials to take an active role in a solution, albeit an imperfect one.
“This came from them saying they want a better system, a single point of entry,” he said. “It’s not a complete solution.”
County officials said they would process the homeless referred by the mission and try to transport those from outside the area back to their points of origin.
“We will do the best we can and we’re going to service everyone we can,” said Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson, noting there are about 100 social workers on staff. “We can only do what we’re capable of doing.”
County officials also said they have anticipated the change and can accommodate it.
Forest Gilmore, director of county’s Department of Family and Community Development, said his office received an initial round of referrals two weeks ago and will allocate resources to meet demand. In some cases, that will mean a referral to the rescue mission. In others, it will mean a bus ticket.
“In those instances a person can’t return on their own, we’ll provide funds for transportation to their point of destination,” he said. “A lot of individuals wish to go back — it probably wouldn’t be advantageous for them to stay because resources are scarce.”
The hope would be to reverse the problem of other counties sending their homeless to Atlantic City — so-called Greyhound therapy.
At very least, said Assemblyman Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, the change could generate data to show the extent of Greyhound therapy. He and Assemblyman John Amodeo, also R-Atlantic, have introduced a bill that would require county agencies to prove they tried to help a homeless person before sending them to Atlantic City.
The new intake procedures could put more pressure on jurisdictions to take responsibility for their own residents, said state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic.
“There may be some short-term pain, but I think ultimately everyone — including the homeless themselves — will be better served with a different approach,” he said.
The mission sued Ocean County last summer over alleged Greyhound therapy and a lack of funding.
The lack of financial support from governments has been an issue within Atlantic County itself.
Debbi Giacomoni, who has worked at the shelter for 16 years, said it is a struggle for the shelter to get reimbursed by the county. She said a growing backlog of applications necessitated the policy change.
On Thursday, she said the shelter was being reimbursed for just 26 of the 350 clients who would sleep there overnight.
Since 2009, social workers have come to the shelter to help clients apply for food stamps, Medicaid and emergency services that help pay for the shelter. But Giacomoni said county social workers only evaluated 17 percent of the individual clients at the shelter. Of the 894 applications the mission filed, she said, just 266 were approved.
Moreover, fewer clients are eligible, she said, due to a combination of changes to guidelines and a gradual decrease in the number of social workers made available by the county.
“If we can improve that just a little bit, we’d be able to help a lot more people,” she said.
Forest said the number of social workers who visited the shelter decreased because of the lack of eligible applicants.
“We can’t give them out arbitrarily to someone who says, ‘I’m homeless’,” he said.
But Giacomoni said the rescue mission should be valued for the work it does: “The thinking is that we’re costing the community, but in reality the cost would be much greater without us,” she said.
According to the organization's Form 990 tax returns, the shelter took in $5.5 million and spent nearly $6 million in 2010, the most recent year available. Southrey was paid $104,334.
Southrey could not be reached for further comment Thursday evening.
But the logistics of how the rescue mission operates could have a significant impact on Atlantic City if it results in more people walking a mile from the shelter to the county building — or getting turned away.
Atlantic City Councilmen George Tibbitt and Tim Mancuso said no one had notified them of the plan and expressed concerns about homeless being sent back and forth.
“The city should be in the loop on that,” Tibbitt said. “This thing could definitely backfire if it’s not done correctly.”
Mancuso also wondered how county officials would be able to force people to leave the city.
“It’s a great concept, and a great idea, and we have a problem with homelessness that we need to correct,” he said. “But in order to handle it, I think it has to be more orchestrated.”
Councilman Business Administrator Ron Cash said no one spoke with him, either. Mayor Lorenzo Langford and other councilmen were unreachable late Thursday.
Staff writer Emily Previti contributed to this report.
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