Southrey said Wednesday that mission board chairman Robert Stahler told him Sept. 13 that he was being relieved of his duties through at least the end of the month. He said he did not know whether the suspension would lead to dismissal.
No one on the mission's board of trustees or its administrative staff returned calls seeking comment.
Stahler "polled" board members about him at a Sept. 12 meeting, Southrey said he was told. Stahler did not take a vote and apparently acted on his own, Southrey said.
Stahler gave no definitive reason for the suspension, but the board "may disagree with how I was conducting myself" over the last couple of years, Southrey said. He declined to elaborate.
"I'm a little sad . . . dismayed," Southrey said. "I'm still hopeful we can work something out. In the meantime, I still urge people to support the mission."
Southrey was a chemical engineer who gave up his job to volunteer at the mission. He was hired as the nonprofit's chaplain in 1980. In 2000, he was made executive director.
He is known for unconventional practices, including searching abandoned houses and under the Boardwalk to find people who need help even when the 300-bed mission was filled to capacity.
Supporters said Wednesday he had used his own funds to buy food and clothing for the needy and brought homeless people to stay in his home until they could be placed elsewhere.
"He has always shown extreme love for people and helped so many people get back on their feet," said Daniel Smith, a receptionist at the Revel casino.
Smith said he met Southrey when he was a child, living on the streets with his mother.
"He took us to his own home, fed us at his own table, let us swim in his backyard," Smith said. Some "don't like what he does and what he says because he is a true advocate for the homeless."
Southrey has been vocal about what he says is the unwillingness of nearby areas to deal with their homeless issues, and has accused Philadelphia and some suburban areas of New Jersey of administering "Greyhound therapy" by bussing the indigent to Atlantic City.
The rescue mission last year sued the Ocean County Board of Social Services, alleging that an overabundance of homeless people had been sent south by the agency.
New Jersey lawmakers introduced a bill in early May aimed at cutting down on the practice of bouncing the indigent among jurisdictions.
The mission and what to do about the city's homeless came under more scrutiny after the May 21 daylight stabbing deaths of two Canadian tourists near a casino. Arrested was a homeless Philadelphia woman described by relatives as schizophrenic.
Southrey said at the time that he was opposed to efforts to relocate the mission to the mainland, far from the evolving tourist district that state and local officials hope will reverse the fortunes of the flagging casino town. Such a move would take the resources of his agency away from the people most dependent on them, he said.
But Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said Wednesday that the city desperately needed to change how it handles the homeless.
"If we are going to compete as a world-class destination gaming resort, we can't have a homeless population at the center of our tourism district. It just doesn't work," he said.
Levinson said he had no prior discussions with the mission board about Southrey's suspension and was "surprised" by it. "But I think what we are seeing now is that we need to make some changes," he said.
Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Jersey Shore blog, "Downashore," at www.philly.com/downashore.