Casino visitors eat up soup kitchen's resources Day-trippers are hurting an Atlantic City facility.

Posted: November 22, 2002

ATLANTIC CITY — They start walking down Virginia Avenue from the Trump Taj Mahal shortly before noon, alone or in pairs, bags slung on their shoulders.

They are casino bus patrons down for the day from New York City, and they are coming to Miss Jean Webster's soup kitchen for the free lunch.

Miss Jean will not turn anyone away, but this influx of casino patrons - mostly older recent immigrants from China - is bankrupting her, she said. As many as 100 a day come for lunch, many of them regulars, then head back to the casinos.

They sit stoically through the prayer service, listen politely to the gospel songs, eat the hot meal (turkey, peas, carrots and roasted potatoes) alongside the city's homeless and destitute, then head back to the roulette tables.

The Rev. Robert Higgs, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, where the soup kitchen is located, said the time had come for the casinos to help out. Only Donald Trump sends leftover food for Webster daily through a food bank, and the kitchen gets little financial help from casinos.

"We have been faithful hosts to their guests," Mr. Higgs said. "This has been a major drain on our resources. We are paying for the casino's marketing."

He said the problem began a year or so ago, with casinos marketing in certain neighborhoods where immigrants from China were happy to take advantage of promotional bus deals that in some cases gave them enough money - $9 a day - to help pay their nightly rent in a flophouse.

Word of the free lunch in the church across from the Taj apparently spread, and soon the Chinese-speaking New Yorkers became a fixture at the kitchen, where 14,957 meals were served in October, up from about 10,000 at the beginning of the year. Started in Webster's home in 1984, the soup kitchen now spends $172,000 a year and feeds between 400 and 600 people a day.

"You don't know who's who and what's what," Webster said. "It's not my nature to turn anyone away. But I'm just scraping by."

Added Mr. Higgs: "The day we would start means-testing, the whole philosophy would be shot. We have faith that God is working in ways we don't understand."

Waiting in line one day this week, the casino patrons said the promotional bus deal was no longer so good - casinos in general have been cutting back on day-trip packages. The group from Queens received $20 back on an $18 fare, and no food vouchers.

"Just $2," complained one woman.

Another man, Hung Zexu, stood with a group of friends from Flushing, waiting to be let in for the second seating. He just held up his hands and laughed when asked if he gambled during his trips.

"Oh, no, no," he said.

In many ways, the Chinese patrons are no different than the legions of frugal retirees who take advantage of bus packages to have a cheap day out and don't leave much pocket change behind. They are the reason casinos have drastically cut back on their bus marketing, trimming perks as they try to draw more lucrative visitors.

Webster said she believes many of the bus patrons are, in fact, poor. "You can look at them and see they don't have much," she said. "It's a lot of elderly."

But she can see that many appear to have some means. They are decently dressed in suit pants and leather jackets, new sneakers and shoes.

After lunch Wednesday, some of the Chinese patrons walked back to the Taj Mahal, headed into the casinos past the slot machines, and gathered around roulette tables.

One woman who had just eaten lunch at Miss Jean's placed a $15 coupon and three $5 chips on "1-18" and lost. Others were seen pulling dollar bills out of their wallet to play.

The Rev. John Scotland, who oversees Friends of Jean Webster Inc., was incensed to learn that some of the bus patrons went back to the casinos and gambled. "I'm going to follow those people back to the roulette table and ask for a donation," he said. "It's outrageous."

He said he had also been trying to find someone who could explain to the Chinese-speakers the nature of Miss Jean's Kitchen and why they should perhaps find lunch elsewhere.

"There's a cultural and language barrier that prevents these people from knowing what kind of place this is," he said.

In response to a letter from then-Casino Control Commission chairman Michael Fedorko - "Your marketing efforts may be attracting persons who are availing themselves only of the munificence of Sister Jean and not the amenities of your casino" - Park Place Entertainment said it would end the bus trips from certain neighborhoods. No other casino responded.

Park Place Entertainment and the Trump Organization did not comment on the issue when contacted yesterday.

Mr. Scotland said the bus patrons were having a ripple effect on Webster's finances. Donors get upset when they hear about whom their money helps feed, and the United Way is wary of accepting the group because it feeds people from outside Atlantic County.

Mr. Scotland urged the casinos to include a food voucher with the package or increase food or direct financial help. The group receives about $25,000 a year from the Presbyterian church and about $6,500 a year from the city; the rest of its funding comes from private donations. Financial donations from the casino companies total less than $5,000 a year, he said.

"This is a huge issue," he said. "If the restaurants in the casinos could be forced to send their leftover food, we could feed the homeless in all of New Jersey."

Contact Amy Rosenberg at 609-823-0453 or arosenberg@phillynews.com.

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