Atlantic City seeks to move rescue missions beyond tourist district

Atlantic City Patrolman Connie Hackney bangs a railing on the Boardwalk in an effort to wake a homeless man from Virginia who had been in the city two weeks.
Atlantic City Patrolman Connie Hackney bangs a railing on the Boardwalk in an effort to wake a homeless man from Virginia who had been in the city two weeks. (SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff)
Posted: October 21, 2012

Momentum is building to move three social-service providers away from Atlantic City's tourism district, where authorities say the homeless and drug-addicted populations they attract contradict the family-friendly image the resort is promoting.

Prospective locations in the city have been identified for Sister Jean's Soup Kitchen and the John Brooks Recovery Center, a treatment facility and methadone clinic, officials said. The moves have been discussed for years, but a January deadline for a progress report to Gov. Christie has created new urgency, say those involved.

The Atlantic City Rescue Mission has had talks about a move in recent months as well, said William Southrey, former executive director of the 300-bed facility. Nothing has been said publicly about a relocation since the nonprofit's board of trustees ousted Southrey this month.

"We want to make Atlantic City as attractive as we can," Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said. "We cannot have our city overrun with indigents."

The city will care for its poor, but it cannot take responsibility for the homeless dumped on it by other jurisdictions without compensation, Levinson said.

Some of the drug-treatment services could go to the mainland, said the director of the Brooks Center. Officials would not identify all the locations under consideration and warned that deals could take time.

"The clock is ticking," Levinson said of Christie's mandate to revitalize Atlantic City. "The governor gave us five years to turn this city around."

John Palmieri, executive director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA), which oversees the 1,700-acre state-run tourism district, said the agency was working with the clinic and soup kitchen to provide financial assistance for the moves.

"Our central role is to promote tourism and growth," he said. "We've been working with a number of providers to discuss these three facilities."

Palmieri hopes the soup kitchen and some John Brooks services can be relocated within a year. The mission will take longer, he believes.

"It's not that we're not aware of the important role social services provide," he said.

Alan Oberman, executive director of the John Brooks center, confirmed last week that a relocation discussion he initiated in 2007 had recently progressed. The facility is on Pacific Avenue, where daytrippers' buses arrive, between Resorts Casino Hotel and Bally's Atlantic City.

Some treatment, Oberman said, could move to the mainland. About two years ago, the center paid roughly $25,000 for a purchase option in a Mays Landing business park. Some residential and outpatient services could go there and to another mainland location. Levinson is aiding in the search, the county executive said.

"At this point in time, it looks more positive than it ever has," Oberman said.

The center is assessing whether some facilities, including its methadone program, should remain in Atlantic City, Oberman said. John Brooks serves about 925 clients a day, mostly outpatients.

Finding a site accessible to the city's poor is challenging, said the Rev. John Scotland, who oversees Sister Jean's, run out of Victory First Presbyterian Church on Pacific Avenue, near the Trump Taj Mahal. The kitchen serves hundreds of meals a day.

"CRDA does not want us in the tourism district and the mayor does not want us in a residential neighborhood," he said. He would not disclose the prospective new location.

Atlantic City has faltered in recent years, a result of the struggling economy and competition from casinos in Pennsylvania and other states.

The tourism district, whose master plan received final approval from the CRDA board in February, is in the midst of a $20 million campaign to market itself as a multifaceted entertainment destination. The seaside resort plans to expand attractions beyond the Boardwalk and casinos.

City and state officials have an "economic agenda to improve the fortunes of Atlantic City," said Joseph Rubenstein, a professor of anthropology at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

The presence of the agencies means the downtrodden are roaming areas where tourists visit. Officials "think that these places are hindering them" from rejuvenating the city, Rubenstein said.

A spike in homicides this year - the city already has exceeded its 2011 tally of 12 - also is a concern. Though most have occurred outside the district, a high-profile exception was the daylight stabbings of two Canadian tourists near Bally's on May 21, allegedly by a homeless Philadelphia woman.

The killings heightened debate over whether the methadone clinic, soup kitchen, and mission - on Bachrach Boulevard, across the street from the Convention Center - should be moved, if not for safety, then for appearances.

"The question is whether the poor and homeless are being made scapegoats," Rubenstein said.

Stockton will host a Nov. 1 panel discussion that will bring together Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford and local experts to discuss how proponents of urban revitalization interact with providers of social services.

Among the participants will be Southrey, whose removal from the Atlantic City Rescue Mission shocked many who knew him from his more than three decades there.

The Rev. Bob Stahler, the board chairman, would not comment last week on Southrey's dismissal from his $104,000-a-year job, though the board has said he committed no impropriety. Southrey says he has been given no explanation.

Stahler would not discuss plans to move the mission. Dan Brown, the mission's chief operating officer, did not return calls from The Inquirer.

Southrey believes his blunt comments about counties using "Greyhound therapy," giving their homeless one-way bus tickets to Atlantic City, hit a nerve among the trustees.

Since he made those remarks after the tourist slayings, a bill has been introduced in Trenton to fine caseworkers who send homeless people to other jurisdictions without approval.

The mission has been overwhelmed at times as agencies outside Atlantic County have taken advantage of its open-door policy and treated it as a regional resource. More than 3,000 people are helped each year at the facility, according to Southrey.

The killings raised questions about the city's caring for so many homeless - who typically have addictions, mental illness, criminal records, or a combination of those problems. A large percentage come from other parts of the state, New York, and Pennsylvania.

Southrey and local officials have questioned whether the mission could be moved to or near Ancora Psychiatric Hospital, a state facility in Winslow Township, Camden County, near the borders of Atlantic, Gloucester, and Burlington Counties.

Atlantic City's poor need an accessible location in the resort with access to health care, Southrey said. But he envisions another, larger facility for more than one county.

"That's been my goal all along," he said.


Contact Barbara Boyer

at 856-779-3838, bboyer@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @bbboyer.

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