ATLANTIC CITY — Just before dawn, a small team gathers inside a conference room on the second floor of the Bus Terminal on Atlantic Avenue.
The group of social service outreach workers and law-enforcement officials has one goal: get people the help they need by any means necessary.
By combing the streets in the early morning hours, Volunteers of America and the NJ Transit Police Department encounter people with mental health disorders, substance dependency, financial troubles and legal issues.
And while most of the city’s residents, workers and visitors would rather avoid interactions with that segment of the population, VOA and the NJTPD actively seek them out to offer assistance with housing, food, clothing, addiction and detox treatments, transportation, vocational placement and securing legal identification.
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“It really is about meeting people where they’re at,” said Amanda Leese, regional director for Atlantic City, Volunteers of America Delaware Valley.
Each day, the social service outreach team begins at the bus depot before moving on to other known “hot spots” throughout the seaside resort where the city’s most vulnerable can be found.
Casino bus terminals are among those areas where the outreach team knows they will encounter those in need of services. The terminals provide shelter from the elements, a certain degree of security, electrical outlets for those fortunate enough to have devices in need of charging and the possibility to scrape together some money.
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On Tuesday morning, the outreach team parked a white cargo van outside the bus terminal at Caesars Atlantic City. From Pacific Avenue, it was clear no fewer than a half dozen people were sleeping inside.
Once inside, Leese and NJTPD Officer Gary Denamen make contact with a man they’ve encountered before but who has repeatedly rejected help.
Leese said over the course of two years, the man has turned down help while also having several run-ins with law enforcement.
But, on this day, he accepts the team’s offer. He’s told another van is on its way to pick him up and bring him to the VOA offices on Pennsylvania Avenue.
The immediacy with which VOA can connect people with appropriate services is part of what makes the faith-based nonprofit uniquely successful in its outreach efforts.
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Rather than wait for a detox center to have an available bed or the court system to run someone’s record for outstanding warrants, VOA has created partnerships that allow the organization to act quickly.
“What we do in Atlantic City works really well,” said Dan Sperrazza, senior vice president of government relations for Volunteers of America Delaware Valley. “We use an evidence-based approach that shows what we’re doing is really having an impact.”
By tracking both the number of people they encountered and the number they connected to services, the organization can monitor what works and what doesn’t.
In 2018, VOA in Atlantic City and Camden recorded 6,198 encounters while tallying 2,466 engagements (connections to services). Four-hundred fifty-seven of those engagements resulted in transitional housing services being provided while 265 resulted in mental health or substance-use disorder treatment.
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“We stopped using cookie-cutter blanket methods that say one size fits all,” said Leese.
The hodgepodge of social services offered in most places throughout the country is often complex, even for those in the know. Understanding that those who live on the street, were just released from incarceration or are suffering from underlying mental disabilities would find the system even more confounding drove the outreach team’s efforts to design something more effective.
Denaman spent nearly a month “undercover” as a homeless person in Atlantic City and interacting with those most in need. What he learned helped the outreach team decide how best to tackle the issues at hand.
“A lot of frustration (from the people on the street) was that all these programs are great, all these agencies are great,” he said. “But (the agencies) only want to help us when they want to, not when we want the help.”
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Once a person is linked up with VOA, the organization and its partners, such as NJTPD, monitor their progress. Besides ensuring the individual is receiving the appropriate care, the method allows agencies to coordinate.
“At every point in the system — from entry to exit — we have contact,” said Leese.
Denaman said the methodology is akin to the old adage of “quality over quantity.” He said most people the outreach team encounters will initially reject assistance — often multiple times — but the persistence usually pays off.
The man from the Caesars bus terminal was one of three people to get connected to social services Tuesday morning. On Wednesday, the outreach team will be out again.
Sperrazza said the constant effort was similar to advertising, where repetition breeds results.
“You have to keep in their faces about services,” he said. “We keep coming back.”