ATLANTIC CITY, NEW JERSEY — Last week, on a TV newscast, I saw the homeless woman who fatally stabbed two Canadians in Atlantic City last year. I could tell she “was not all there” even though I’m not a mental health professional. Reportedly, officials are still having her mental capacity tested.
Also, she may have been passing through A.C., not unlike the Canadian couple, which is why I don’t like reporters’ references to her as “an Atlantic City woman.”
We are a city of only about 40,000 residents with approximately 35 million tourists visiting our city each year and we want tourists to keep coming.
This week, as one of the fellows in the LEAD-ACT program, a kind of leadership institute/think tank of a very diverse group of Atlantic City residents, I was apprised of the many reasons why our city has such a large homeless population, many with mental health issues.
LEAD-ACT fellows were given presentations by Atlantic Care employees, Rescue Mission workers, Salvation Army officials, Jewish Family Services supervisors and many others regarding homelessness in our area.
As we sat stunned by some of the statistics presented to us, we asked time and time again, “Why is our city such a magnet for homeless people?”
The answers were varied and complicated but included the facts that Atlantic City is a 24-hour town, has great social and human service programs, holds better possibilities than many cities for legal work during peak tourist season and is a hotbed, some would say, for all types of illegal work because of the gaming-entertainment industry.
Hundreds have been stranded in Atlantic City after gambling away everything they came with, and human trafficking is big in our area because traffickers can bring mainly girls in to service men during big concerts or boxing events and then move them on to the next big event before law enforcement officers can apprehend anyone.
Professionals who serve the homeless population daily reminded us that Americans, in general, are notorious for their NIMBY (not in my back yard) attitude, referring to people in this area who want to move the Rescue Mission and the John Brooks Recovery Center out of Atlantic City.
If anything, according to these professionals, society has failed the people they serve by not having enough missions and drug rehab centers available to offer compassionate, affordable accessibility to services.
They reminded us that we have to take responsibility for these people, because it is our society’s fault that such populations exist in the first place. Though they understand people’s concerns, they said the benefits of these programs far outweigh the disadvantages.
When large mental-health institutions began closing in the 1980s, smaller group homes were supposed to increase to provide home-like supervised housing to people with mental illnesses.
For a variety of reasons, including NIMBY, there have never been enough of these homes to meet society’s needs.
The causes vary depending on who you talk to, but for many different reasons, Atlantic City continues to have a large number of homeless people.
After being devastated by Hurricane Sandy, the Chelsea Area location recently re-opened with a completely new facility to continue its mission, a mission now more than 150 years old.
This is a message that the American artist, Seth Camm, has taken to heart, but for him he’s found his start at the easel. This wasn’t an easy journey for Camm; it took him a nervous breakdown to achieve the compassion he now has for the plight of the homeless.
“We were struck pretty hard by the economy. But then someone came forward and offered us an unbelievable contribution. They offered to match us dollar for dollar in the money we raised at our annual Night of Broadway Stars fundraiser. They matched ticket sales, ad sales, everything.”
As temperatures plummet, and we recuperate from plentiful holidays inside our warm houses, thoughts of a man like Bill Southrey add a special perspective. Southrey’s CEO of the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, which provides the area’s homeless with a place to stay and services aimed at helping them live life off the streets. An Absecon native, Southrey has devoted his efforts to the Rescue Mission for some 30 years.
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