Debate over what should be done with Atlantic City’s large transient population has been heightened with last week’s slaying of two tourists, allegedly by a woman relatives describe as a homeless schizophrenic.
Homeless people on Atlantic City’s streets and under its Boardwalk are incompatible with the image the city is trying to present, officials say. And other communities’ and hospitals’ practice of “Greyhound therapy,” or giving their homeless one-way tickets to Atlantic City, has only compounded the problem.
John Palmieri, executive director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, said it was unfair that Atlantic City had become a hub for homeless people.
“We need to do more, and I think the most important thing is not to become the host city for Philadelphia and all of South Jersey,” Palmieri said. “That will not serve anyone’s purpose and will create a negative impact on the Tourism District.”
But advocates say removing social services from the city center won’t eliminate the homeless problem and could hurt residents who rely on those services.
No comprehensive study has ever been conducted of the city’s homeless, but the Atlantic City Rescue Mission says it helped about 3,000 individuals last year.
Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said the solution was to relocate such facilities and to prevent other jurisdictions from exporting “their problems to Atlantic City.”
Government and tourism officials have discussed moving social-service centers away from the city’s tourist areas for more than a decade. Stakes have never been higher, with this weekend’s grand opening of the $2.4 billion Revel megaresort and a new marketing campaign under way.
“We’re not the only game in town anymore,” he said. “We have to make sure our image is (one) that people want to come here and stay, after all, they have to pay for tolls, gasoline and parking. Once they get here, they don’t want to worry that they might be taking their life in their hands.”
A food kitchen and methadone clinic are on Pacific Avenue, and the Rescue Mission is next to the Convention Center, both drawing homeless people into tourist zones, Levinson said.
Atlantic City Councilman-at-large Frank Gilliam said the city was overwhelmed. Monday’s attack shows the need to “get a little deeper and go a little further” in identifying transients, he said.
“We need to sit down with the Rescue Mission and put a tag on these people,” Gilliam said.
Bill Southrey, president of the Rescue Mission, said cracking down on the homeless won’t fix New Jersey’s inadequate mental-health and social-service systems, failed bureaucracies that helped create the problem.
Lack of public funding has led other agencies to send homeless to the nonprofit Rescue Mission, which has operated in Atlantic City since 1964, he said. The mission has been on Bacharach Boulevard since 1970.
Southrey is not opposed to moving the mission, but he said it won’t help.
About a third of the people it sheltered last year — including battered women, problem gamblers and the unemployed — lived in Atlantic City before they sought assistance, he said.
“We will still need something in place to help these people because — like it or not — we’re still responsible for them,” he said.
Southrey said he was troubled that the issue was being brought up after the homicides.
Little is known about Antoinette Pelzer, the 44-year-old Philadelphia woman who allegedly stabbed Po Lin Wan, 80, and her daughter, Alice Mei See Leung, 47, on Pacific Avenue between Bally’s Atlantic City and AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center’s City Campus. Both women died.
Relatives told The Associated Press that Pelzer suffered from schizophrenia and had been homeless since January. When and how she arrived in Atlantic City is unknown. Southrey said her name did not appear in the shelter’s registration logs.
Monday’s slayings were the first involving the homeless in Atlantic County this year. That’s out of 12 homicides in the county this year.
Last year, a homeless man was killed by another homeless man inside a boarded-up apartment complex on Arctic Avenue. That was the only homicide out of 23 that year in the county to involve a homeless person.
The Rev. John Scotland, executive of the nonprofit Friends of Jean Webster Inc., said the idea that charities such as Sister Jean’s Kitchen attracted more homeless and negatively affected casino revenue was absurd.
“I find it laughable these corporations open 20 or more casinos within 200 miles of us and they’re complaining their business is off in Atlantic City because of the poor,” he said. Politicians and local leaders “should begin with the needs of those at the bottom of the economic spectrum rather than playing this game about who’s to blame for the casinos making less money.”
The push to relocate facilities such as his began in earnest about 2003, Scotland said, when the CRDA approached the food kitchen. In September, the nonprofit group agreed that it would move its operations to the Rescue Mission, but Scotland said he never heard back from the authority.
Palmieri said there have been discussions to possibly relocate the Rescue Mission and other social services within the district, but no action has been taken.
Mayor Lorenzo Langford said moving social services out of Atlantic City would deprive the people who need them.
“There are times when homeless people are responsible for some of the problems we’ve experienced in Atlantic City, and there are times when they’re unfairly painted with a broad brush,” he said. “But for the grace of God there go I or you or someone else.”
Rolling back the red carpet
Palmieri said CRDA ambassadors have been trained in how to best interact with homeless people living in the Tourism District.
“We have a very professional police department, and our ambassadors have been trained,” he said. Ambassadors are trained to contact police if needed and in how to talk to individuals about “whether or not they need help.”
There have also been strides to eliminate the “Greyhound therapy” problem.
A bill introduced earlier this month by Assemblymen John Amodeo and Chris Brown, both R-Atlantic, would require municipalities or agencies to develop a case-management plan when the original contact is made with the at-risk person. If the person has to go outside the area for assistance, the coordinator must explain why and coordinate with receiving agencies.
But Levinson worries that the Rescue Mission may also be “rolling out the red carpet” through advertisements in other markets, namely a full-page ad that ran in The Philadelphia Inquirer. The ad, which features one of the shelter’s clients, states that the mission is “where more than half of New Jersey’s homeless population turns to when there’s no place left to go,” and features a donation form.
Southrey said the ad was designed to raise awareness and solicit donations from newspaper readers in the Inquirer’s market, where many clients are referred from. It is not meant to increase those referrals, he said.
“I don’t need to advertise,” he said. “Those counties are sending people clandestinely as we speak.”
Southrey said the mission routinely transported some clients back to their original communities with the help of a $89,000 grant from the CRDA. But the contract limits transportation to 350 miles and places other stipulations on whom they can help.
“I can’t send them back to homelessness if there’s no resources waiting for them,” he said. “The other day, city personnel were very frustrated because they thought I could just send someone indiscriminately back to their point of origin.”
Homelessness is a symptom — not a cause — of larger problems that have plagued Atlantic City for decades, problems that are subtly alluded to in the resort’s new “Do AC!” slogan, Southrey said.
“What does it mean to do Atlantic City? Everybody’s doing Atlantic City in a different way. To some, it means gambling, partying, drinking and having fun. But on the street, it means, ‘I’m going to kill you, I’m going to beat you up.’ If I’m going to do a young woman, it means something else entirely.
“I don’t know what happened to ‘America’s Playground,’ but Atlantic City certainly isn’t a playground anymore.”
Staff Writers Emily Previti and Caitlin Dineen contributed to this report.
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