ATLANTIC CITY - Casino revenues are on a double-digit decline. Retailers worry that holiday sales won't meet their expectations. But for a few places, business is booming.

Take the Atlantic City Rescue Mission. The number of homeless people in Atlantic City has gone up 8 to 9 percent in the past year, director Bill Southrey said.

But "the biggest increase is people living in the community trying hard not to become homeless," Southrey said. "We're at the stage, if you give another six months to this economy, more people will be homeless."

The Rescue Mission gets about 50 to 75 calls a day from area residents seeking help with mortgage and utility payments and to put food on the tables, Southrey said. The staff can hardly keep up with the demand, and is opening a site in Egg Harbor City to serve people in the western part of Atlantic County.

Many of the callers have jobs, but their work hours have been cut, leaving them with insufficient funds to keep their homes, Southrey said.

The mission usually gives about 40,000 meals a year from its food pantry, but gave enough food for 100,000 meals in 2008, Southrey said. The mission helped about 14,000 people last year. The numbers for 2009 aren't in yet, "but it's going to be at least that, if not more," he said.

It's all done on a budget of $4 million per year, with little - if any - help from the city and county governments, Southrey said.

Ann Thoresen, supervisor for the supportive housing program at Jewish Family Services, is also seeing more people call for help with feeding and housing their families.

There is a widespread misperception that the homeless are responsible for their own condition, Thoresen said. But some clients who call for help had been working two jobs and doing well, and never expected to come to a social service agency for help.

"Homelessness knows no boundaries. Everyone can be impacted by it," Thoresen said. "People who never dreamed they would be in this situation in their lives are finding themselves here just because they lost their jobs."

As winter approaches, Jewish Family Services will conduct programs at the public library on benefits, employment and housing resources that people can turn to for help, Thoresen said. Some sessions will be one-on-one meetings with people in need.

Government and private organizations can help, but they are so overwhelmed with a demand for services there is often a delay in getting services to the people who need them, Thoresen said.

Out on the street

But some people don't want to come in off the street.

Lou Gasparini, who was himself homeless for 6½ years, is an outreach peer specialist for the Rescue Mission. His job is to try and get homeless people to come into the mission, but barring that, he supplies them with blankets, sleeping bags and other items they need to survive the winter.

The people on the street trust him, because he was once one of them, Gasparini said.

Some people come to the Rescue Mission for a night or two, and then just walk out the door, Gasparini said.

"They just want to keep that high going, that addiction going, and they're not ready to give their life up," Gasparini said. "If you're not ready to come here, you're not ready to come here."

Others don't want to stay in the mission because there are warrants out for their arrest, and the police make regular checks for people who are wanted, Gasparini said. Most of the warrants are for petty offenses, such as panhandling or not paying child support, but if the fines go high enough, it can mean a stay in the county jail.

"The freedom, or what they perceive as freedom, is addicting too," Gasparini said. "The mission is structure, and they oppose that."

Others don't want to leave their friends on the street, as they form a powerful bond procuring necessities and protecting each other against the elements, Gasparini said.

"That's a bond you never forget. That's why I do what I do," he said.

No grumbling tummies

One thing that is not a problem is staying fed, Gasparini said. Between Jean Webster's kitchen, the Salvation Army, the Rescue Mission and other compassionate people, the homeless manage to keep their bellies full.

"If you're homeless in Atlantic City, the last thing you have to worry about is going hungry," Gasparini said.

But it is still dangerous on the streets, and some of the homeless do not survive, Gasparini said. He and some friends started a list of the dead on the wall of an old tunnel, and it has 30 people that they knew personally.

"I don't want to see anybody else die," he said.

For Southrey, there's another aspect to his mission. He wants the general public to see the homeless not as lazy bums, but as people who fell upon hard times.

Most people don't realize how close they are to homelessness, Southrey said. Many Rescue Mission clients had a good station in life until an illness, an accident, a pink slip or the end of a relationship left them without a place to live. Southrey said he has seen former classmates, relatives and a former teacher living on the streets.

"I hope we can get people to realize that these are people, human beings," Southrey said. "God made all of us the same."

Contact Elaine Rose:

609-272-7215

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