WEST ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — The motels along this stretch of the Black Horse Pike have long been a place of almost-last resort for those winding up on the outskirts of Atlantic City.
On Wednesday, Michael McLain, 63, a guitar on his back and a colorful scarf for a mask, was checking out of the Hi Ho Motel, bound for ... he couldn’t say.
The owner wanted $40 a night — too much, said McLain, a former cab driver from Albany, N.Y., who said he’d been in the area for a few months. And so he waited for a bus to take him somewhere else.
Now, according to Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small, some of these motels along a dingy strip of Egg Harbor Township will be part of a strategy, in conjunction with social service agencies, to take the homeless who may have tested positive for COVID-19 or be at risk off of Atlantic City’s streets, and out of the city’s busy Rescue Mission, if needed.
The plan to place Atlantic City’s coronavirus-positive in these motels, including the Economy Inn and the New Sea Breeze, was first reported Tuesday by radio host Harry Hurley of WPG-FM. Hurley cited emails among Egg Harbor Township officials, citing discussions with Atlantic City’s fire chief and head of emergency management, Scott Evans.
“This is an opportunity where we can get the homeless (a) shelter, (b) help, and (c) wraparound services,” Small said Wednesday. He said it was part of an existing homeless services operation run in conjunction with Jewish Family Services and Volunteers of America, both of which have been working to help the city’s homeless return to their hometowns.
It was unclear Wednesday whether any coronavirus-positive or at-risk homeless had begun to be located outside of Atlantic City under the care of these agencies as a result of these discussions.
In Philadelphia, officials have set up the Holiday Inn Express in Center City as a quarantine site for people who do not have other housing.
Small said he nixed an earlier proposal to take coronavirus-positive homeless people from the Atlantic City Rescue Mission and house them in a motel in Atlantic City on Pacific Avenue, near some of the casinos. All of the city’s hotels and motels were ordered closed earlier this month. Casinos have been closed since March 16.
“We didn’t want them in Atlantic City,” Small said. “That’s not to be derogatory. It’s more a big-picture plan. Some people are a paycheck or two from being in that situation. We get it. We definitely feel for people. But this virus has no boundaries. This is supposed to be a partnership. We thought it would be better to get them off shore.”
Evans declined to talk about any specifics of where the city’s homeless would be housed through this crisis, but stressed that “Atlantic City can’t do it alone.” Atlantic City has long been a place where the homeless and addicted end up, often after receiving bus tickets in other jurisdictions.
Adding a health crisis to the existing crisis of the homeless presents serious challenges, he said. Atlantic City has 46 reported cases as of Wednesday, and three deaths. Egg Harbor Township has 65, with six deaths.
“Let’s just recognize this is an enormous crisis superimposed on an existing crisis,” Evans said.
“It is very challenging, when you’re looking at the unhoused population, for quarantining and self-quarantining,” he said.
“We’re all in this together. We need to look at the big picture. We need to get the unhoused off the streets and get them the services they need. . People from all over the county and state come here. Our goal is to get them the services they need and get them back to their home.”
Bob Franklin, director of development at the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, said the mission was near capacity at 300, and was also stepping up its food program for the non-homeless poor. Recent estimates of the homeless population in the county have exceeded 400.
Franklin said the mission is not accepting anyone with symptoms, and was taking steps to keep its residents safe, including spacing out at meals. “Our plan is to keep everybody healthy,” he said.
Egg Harbor Township recently received a $2.5 million grant to buy and demolish four of the motels along the Black Horse Pike (Route 40), including the Hi Ho Motel, which have been repeatedly flooded during high tides and storms. The township wants to make the area open space without future development.
In 2015, six motels were demolished in an effort to clean up the blight along one of the main routes into Atlantic City, including the notorious Golden Key Motel, where in 2006 the bodies of four women were found murdered and dumped in the marsh.
Officials from Egg Harbor Township did not return messages left for comment. A person answering the phone at the Sea Breeze hung up after a reporter’s inquiry. At the Economy Inn, the person in the office said, “I don’t know,” and declined to speak further.
Beth Joseph, a spokesperson for Jewish Family Services, said in an email: “JFS continues to serve vulnerable and at-risk populations throughout Atlantic and Cape May Counties."