ATLANTIC CITY — Tamenka Stillwell had never been homeless before.
The 46-year-old was recently evicted from her home after losing her job, she said, and has been staying at the Atlantic City Rescue Mission for a little over a week.
Stillwell was among dozens of homeless, at-risk and underserved women who got the chance to pick out jewelry, clothing, shoes, blankets and a purse full of toiletries at the Pack Your Purse event Saturday afternoon at the All Wars Memorial Building. After the ladies shopped, they were invited to Turning Point Day Center for showers, a fresh coat of nail polish, lunch and games.
“I’m still fortunate, but I fell on hard times,” Stillwell said. “But today was really nice. I got everything a mother would like on Mother’s Day.”
The event, in its second year, was created by Indra Owens and Automne Bennett, the founders of Princess Inc., a city nonprofit that fosters mentoring, education, empowerment and community service. Last year, they gave out 1,000 purses packed with donated daily essentials to women in the city, but this year they pivoted to providing a boutique environment to target the women in the resort who need it most.
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Of the nearly 40,000 people who live in the resort, 40.6% live in poverty, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The New Jersey 2018 Point-in-Time Count of the Homeless, which only shows a one-day snapshot, found 437 homeless people in Atlantic County, which is 5% of the state’s total homeless population.
At 9 a.m. Saturday, a 20-foot U-Haul pulled up to the building, packed with donated items. After a prayer, a handful of volunteers started to unload the truck.
Bennett, 36, jumped in the back and pulled out boxes and bags filled with clothes, shoes, hangers and toiletries to be brought into the building and set up on tables that outlined a dance floor. Suits and coats were hung up on racks. A DJ set up in the corner.
“When you come in here today, you’re going to feel like you’re shopping and you’re not feeling bad about it,” Bennett said. “Just have a nice Mother’s Day.”
The doors opened at noon with upbeat music blaring through speakers and tables filled to the brim. Women, some with children, formed a line to pick through what they needed and what they wanted.
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Heather Hieb, an Atlantic City teacher who lives in Linwood, brought her mother and her kids to volunteer.
“We wanted to do something special for Mother’s Day, especially for women,” Hieb said. “They need to feel special and appreciated.”
As the women milled about, volunteers danced and clapped in time with the music, and Owens and Bennett took to the dance floor.
Owens, 37, said the homeless, at-risk and underserved women of the city deserve to be treated well.
“This is magical,” she said, looking around the crowded room. “As long as we continue to support each other, the less we have to suffer.”