Atlantic City Struggles With Homelessness [SERIES]
This is the fourth part of a five-day series exploring Atlantic City’s revitalization efforts. Read the full series here.
While Atlantic City continues it's struggle for economic redevelopment, it finds itself trapped in another struggle with homelessness within the community.
Recently Atlantic County Assemblymen Chris Brown and John Amadeo proposed legislation that would fine counties or municipalities that send their homeless population to the Atlantic City Mission rather than dealing with the problem themselves-a practice known as "Greyhound Therapy."
That Mission, which prides itself on accepting all who come to it, has been in a ideological battle with city officials over homelessness within the area. Mission President Bill Southrey says he is told that because he accepts everyone, the Atlantic City Mission becomes a destination for the homeless, which in turn contributes to the problem. Southrey says part of the of the problem is institutions take advantage of the Mission's open door policy, even when they are told not to send anyone.
Last year the Atlantic City Homeless Mission served roughly three thousand people, a third of which are from other counties.
"We recently had a situation with Ancora Hospital where one agency accepted them on our behalf, and said we would take the patient. I already told them we wouldn't take the patient so there's that idea that we will just accept everyone but not anymore."
Amidst pressure, the Mission has already said it will no longer take homeless residents from Ocean County, however it is difficult for them to have any kind of control over it since often people show up on their doorstep without any kind of referrals to speak of.
It's not the first time this kind of situation happened, Southrey notes he was told numerous times to stop accepting everyone who comes to him, however he says in the past when he complied the problem worsened
"As soon as I stopped helping, guess what, now you have people in the streets."
That spill of homeless into the streets of Atlantic City was one of the reasons CRDA emphasized it's initiative of "clean & safe."
One of the first initiatives by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority was to address this by sealing off a lot of the access points beneath the boardwalk and having police address panhandling in the Tourism District. While it did an effective job of removing the casino strip as a place for the homeless to live, it created a push back effect for the Mission.
"Our numbers are actually higher this summer than they normally are, so there's fewer people on the boardwalk but they're more people here." Says Tom Davidson, development director for the Mission.
Davidson explains what happens is homeless individuals get bounced around between different municipal, county, state, and federal government programs, each that have their own rules and policies.
"They [Various government programs} don't really mesh well and consequentially we're the last line of defense."
However the homeless Mission is not limitless so people have gotten turned away due to lack of space, as well as leaving on their own.
Mayor Lorenzo Langford, who is a big proponent of the Mission, has fielded complaints from residents of the cities Westside neighborhoods who have dealt with overflow of homeless.
"There were residents of the mission who will wander through the neighborhood and obviously that is creating some tension."
Davidson says much of the problem is in addition to the overflow from other counties and towns, the economy forces people who in the past might not have needed the Mission's services to seek it out. Especially in a tourism driven economy like the one in Atlantic City, Davidson says many people can only find work for six to eight months out of the year.
"After that it really slows down...You have a number of people in this region that are what we would call under employed. They're underemployed so they're forced to work another job. If anyone loses their job or gets ill well then they're struggling."
With the Assembly bill still in limbo there is little resolution for the Shelter, which is expecting even larger numbers in the coming years. Some have called for it to be moved elsewhere, in an attempt to distance it from the already congested city and to make it a less attractive location to people with addictions with alcohol, gambling, and substance abuse. However Davidson says they're already operating on a shoestring budget so currently that isn't a possibility.
"We don't have the resources to physically more and it would take a political mindset that says here's we here we want to establish a homeless facility and here's how we would want to operate it."
Mayor Langford said he wouldn't be opposed to the Mission moving elsewhere. however,
"If money is an issue they won't get a dime from Atlantic City."