Sister Jean’s Kitchen, Atlantic City’s renowned soup kitchen and community space for the poor and homeless, is in desperate need of a miracle. At least that’s what the Rev. John Scotland is hoping for.
“I mean, we only ended up here because of a miracle," said Scotland, the center’s executive director. “We’re just looking for a new home to invite us to come and co-locate with them. We just need the space to provide hospitality to folks.”
On Monday, city officials posted a notice to vacate on the doors of Victory First Presbyterian Deliverance Church, which houses Sister Jean’s Kitchen on Pennsylvania Avenue between Pacific and Atlantic Avenues. The group has until Thursday to clear out of the building it has called home since 1997.
Dale Finch, the city’s director of licensing and inspection, said the church had been notified of maintenance violations several months ago that need to be fixed for the place to remain open.
“We were working with the church to see what was going to happen with the violations,” Finch said. “We wanted to see if they could get things moving and improving, but it was evident after dealing with them that they didn’t have the funds to make the improvements.”
In a subsequent inspection, the department found more problems.
“Some of the roof trusses were deteriorating, and in some cases you can see the outside from the inside, looking up at the sky,” Finch said. “There were some serious structural issues that we felt went beyond the code enforcement violations that had to be addressed.”
Although, Sister Jean’s Kitchen wasn’t fully prepared for the notice to vacate, it has been looking to move for at least a year. In 2017, it used funds from its reserves to purchase properties at St. Monica’s, a former Catholic church that has a kitchen and space for its daily operations.
In 2017, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) gave Sister Jean’s Kitchen $1 million to renovate St. Monica’s and move there.
At the suggestion of the CRDA, Scotland and Sister Jean’s Kitchen explored redevelopment options with Joseph Jingoli, a developer and co-owner of the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, who offered his construction management services free. He estimated that it would cost $2 million to do the renovations, and the redevelopment plans stalled.
Now, a year and many code violations later, Sister Jean’s Kitchen is faced with a hard reality: the food has to be returned and the building vacated.
“There’s been pressure on us to move out of the Tourism District for years,” Scotland said. “The building’s falling down around us. We don’t want to be here either."
“We could have worked things out with the CRDA, and we still can,” he said. “We just need the mayor to approve us moving and operating out of St. Monica’s.”
Scotland said Sister Jean’s Kitchen’s has been working with the mayor’s office to get the required approval but that process has stalled.
Lisa Ryan, spokesperson for the state Department of Community Affairs, also speaking on behalf of the city, said the department, the mayor’s office, and the CRDA had invited officials from Sister Jean’s Kitchen to attend a meeting at City Hall with representatives of other nonprofit organizations to talk about effective ways to provide food and social services to people in need in the city. Representatives from Sister Jean’s declined to come, she said.
While Sister Jean’s Kitchen works to try to resolve the issue with the city, the Thursday deadline looms — and a pressing need could soon go unfilled.
On Tuesday, Sister Jean’s Kitchen served lunch to about 100 people. Aimee Atlin of Atlantic City, who has been coming to Sister Jean’s for more than a year, said she was enjoying her lunch of mashed potatoes, canned peaches, and turkey. “It’s not trail mix out of a can or some weird meat," she said.
Atlin said the city’s eviction notice did not surprise her. Over the years, she said, city officials have become more strict about feeding times there, and expressed concern about the lines of people wrapping around buildings, waiting to be served.
“They want people who come here as tourists and gamblers to think that Atlantic City is a playground for wealthy people,” Atlin said. “It certainly is not. You know they want homeless people to get off the street.
“Sister Jean’s is not just a place for homeless people," she said. “It’s a place for anybody in the community to come and eat lunch."