ATLANTIC CITY — Just before sunrise on a December morning, police Officer Jose Gonzalez led a small group through the sand under the Boardwalk, looking for signs of life.
The group got on their knees and crawled under piers looking for camps, jackets peeking out from under concrete crevices and blankets sprawled out under the boards. But they were mainly looking for people.
“Come out, sir. Are you alone in there?” Gonzalez yelled through a slit under the Playground pier. “You’re not in trouble.”
Gonzalez, 36, an Atlantic City native, is the homeless outreach officer in the resort and leads the beach and Boardwalk sweeps to find people who are homeless and connect them to services. This is part of an organized monthly effort by the department, Jewish Family Service, Volunteers of America, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the courts. Sweepers gather before 6 a.m. every second Tuesday of the month and cover the whole Boardwalk.
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During the most recent trip Dec. 12, the group found five people under the boards and engaged several others on the Boardwalk to see what kind of help they needed.
“Most of the people I encounter, they’ve at least seen me before,” said Gonzalez, who has been with the department for 13 years. “My truck is pretty well known.”
A total of 422 people were identified as experiencing homelessness in Atlantic County this year, 54 fewer than in 2016, according to the 2017 Point-in-Time Count survey. Atlantic City Police Chief Henry White said fewer people are being found during the sweeps since it began.
And the fewer people found, the more it’s clear they’re being connected to services, he said.
Stephanie Howard, of Egg Harbor City
“This homeless problem is not something that’s specific to Atlantic City. This is a nationwide problem,” White said. “But we’re trying to come up with ways to combat it and to help these folks to come back.”
If the team finds someone during the sweeps, they approach them to have a conversation. While sleeping outside or staying on or underneath the Boardwalk is not allowed per city ordinance, Gonzalez reminds them and tells many, “You’re not in trouble” and “I believe your story.”
The idea is to connect them with whatever services they say they need — even if it’s just a conversation or a bottle of water. Every person gets a “Blessing Bag” created by the department, which includes hats, scarves, gloves, socks, toiletries and snacks inside, along with a list of services available for people struggling.
Gonzalez sees a multitude of reasons people live on the streets, including addiction, mental health issues or a poor family situation.
“When you get stuck in a pattern, it’s so hard to get out of it,” he said.
The Rev. Collins A. Days Sr. of Second Baptist Church in A.C.
During the December sweep, people were found under Central and Steel piers, hiding under concrete ramps and shacks in the sand. Some wondered whether they were getting arrested, and some shied away from speaking at all.
The team will call for an ambulance if they need one, and they end each interaction by making sure each person has a place to go, whether it’s a ride somewhere or an appointment with an agency.
Gonzalez encourages many to go to the Turning Point Day Center — he’s there every day during lunchtime, so he’d know if they show up, he said.
He and the team knew many of the people by name — as well as their stories — before even encountering them. The group strayed off the Boardwalk and behind a store at one point, looking for Carlos.
The 55-year-old Cuban refugee exited a makeshift shack that had wrappers, jugs, plastic tarps and blankets covering the wooden walls and floor. A lock was on his door, and the man, Carlos Martinez, emerged after Gonzalez banged on the outside.
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“There’s no way to get a job, nothing,” Martinez said. “They want to help me, there’s no way to help me. It’s been a long time.”
Farther down the Boardwalk, a jacket was buried in the sand under a concrete structure.
Rassel Pinda, 57, emerged from the sand. He said he came to Atlantic City from New York over a month ago to gamble, but he hasn’t found his way back.
“It’s cold, especially when you’re homeless,” he said. “This is the first time I encountered this. I see a lot of people sleeping all over.”
He declined an offer to get a bus ticket back to New York.
The interactions then turn to the social-service agencies, who assess the person’s needs, see what they are willing to do for help and set up an appointment or give out information.
Jewish Family Service’s Atlantic Homeless Alliance runs a countywide intake center that works with several partner agencies to match people with housing, aid and recovery programs.
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Jeffrey Willson, an outreach specialist with mental health/justice-involved services, and Erin Bowes, an outreach specialist with Project Assistance Transition from Homelessness, or PATH, will take people to the county building from the sweeps if they are willing and ready.
But the main goal is to engage, maintain relationships with people and show them they’re out there, Bowes said.
“They have to know that they can trust you, and they have to know you’re going to follow through,” she said.
There is constant follow-up either at the agency appointments, the day center or the shelters.
At one point during the sweep, a peek under the Playground revealed movement and a camp, tucked under a concrete ramp. A box stuck out, along with a backpack and a moving jacket.
Gonzalez, lying on his belly on the sand looking into the makeshift cave, convinced the man to emerge through the slit that couldn’t have been more than a foot tall.
After chatting for a while, the man saw Gonzalez’s card and said he recognized his name.
“That’s me. Who told you about me?” Gonzalez asked the man.
“I’ve heard a lot about you,” the man said. “We met for a reason.”