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How the homeless, mentally ill land in Atlantic City

ATLANTIC CITY - With The Who's "My Generation" playing on his earphones, dressed in crocs and plaid pajama pants, Keith Stell, 57, was happy to tell how he got to Atlantic City two months ago, a paranoid schizophrenic off his meds, a long rap sheet of drug and other arrests, just out of a Gloucester County jail.

A.C. officers Russ Bouffard (left) and Connie Hackney keep Steve Welsh, a homeless man, moving. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer)
A.C. officers Russ Bouffard (left) and Connie Hackney keep Steve Welsh, a homeless man, moving. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer)Read more

ATLANTIC CITY - With The Who's "My Generation" playing on his earphones, dressed in crocs and plaid pajama pants, Keith Stell, 57, was happy to tell how he got to Atlantic City two months ago, a paranoid schizophrenic off his meds, a long rap sheet of drug and other arrests, just out of a Gloucester County jail.

"A cop car," he said, sitting on a bench in the yard of the Atlantic City Rescue Mission with several other men who all attend the Atlantic Behavioral Health program. He said he was now on Seroquel. "They dropped me off. I didn't have a place to go."

Still reeling from the daylight stabbing deaths of two Canadian tourists - allegedly at the hands of a homeless, mentally ill woman who came down from Philadelphia - police officers, social service workers and the homeless themselves painted a picture Wednesday of Atlantic City as a place where the down and out, the mentally ill, the chronically addicted, and the desperately hopeful are drawn to or sent to by a relative or social service agency.

William Southrey, president of the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, the largest shelter in the state, said nine counties in South Jersey regularly "dump" people in Atlantic City without referrals or treatment plans, or county reimbursements.

"They're using the term Greyhound therapy," Southrey said, of social service agencies elsewhere who see the seaside resort town's shelters, soup kitchens, and recovery programs as answers to their needs and often send off their clients on buses. "In the dark of the night, some of them just roll out of jail, they send them to us."

About 300 a night stay at the Rescue Mission, several hundred others in halfway houses for the mentally ill in the inlet section of town.

Others find spots in bus and train stations, in casino bus depots, on the high dunes on the beach, under the piers, lifeguard tents and the Boardwalk, in marshes or land by the back bays, on concrete electrical station platforms tucked behind the Convention Center and in the unused Surf Baseball Stadium at Bader Field.

Those not involved in the mission's programs must leave after breakfast, left to wander for hours until dinner.

Some, like David Goehring, 27, of Baltimore, who said he was just out of jail for aggravated assault, spend their days at the mission in its Work Readiness programs, a half-step and continued sobriety, from returning to a normal life. "I'm a violent drunk," he said. "They told me about [the mission] in jail. I'm five months clean."

Others, like Joseph Britain, 45, a regular on the Boardwalk who was asked to leave a bench Wednesday afternoon by bicycle Officer Connie Hackney, just wander around, stopping in at the library in Atlantic City or Ventnor, grabbing something to eat at McDonalds, panhandling, or casing the casino floor for unused slot machine credits to cash out.

"I walk around, see what's going on," said Britain, who said he slept in the train station until dawn Wednesday, when the police came and started ticketing everyone there. "I roam and roam and roam."

And yet others, like Feliks Deczewski, 77, an artist originally from Poland, while away hours making sandwiches out of ketchup, butter, and mayo packets seated at a back table at the McDonalds on Atlantic Avenue, or going to the library on Tennessee Avenue, trying to figure out how to regain the right to return to Poland, which he said kicked him out for political reasons decades ago.

Or, he'll go play poker at the casinos, where he has Diamond Card status and said he recently won $8,000 playing Double Down.

"I'm homeless," he said. "I don't want to hide the situation."

Around Tennessee and Pacific, a place referred to as "zombieville" by some police officers and seven blocks from the scene of Monday's deadly knife attack, dozens of people are regularly lined up to get treatment for drug addictions.

On the Boardwalk, Brenda Spencer, 54, and Richard Harris, 64, sat on a bench and told of police officers harassing them off the beach and Boardwalk. "They won't let you sleep," she said, adding that she sometimes stays with friends. "They say, all these people, we got to get rid of them. . . . They're here with their [assistance] checks to make a little money. I came here to gamble."

Hackney, who patrols the Boardwalk on his bike, said he believed he had seen Antoinette Pelzer, the 44-year-old Philadelphia woman charged in the killings, in the last few weeks, talking to herself and acting strangely. She refused help, he said, and lacking any threatening behavior, there was no action to be taken. (Both the rescue mission and Jewish Family Services, which handles many of these cases, said she had not been a client.)

In Philadelphia, school district police officer Greg Bucceroni said he had seen Pelzer panhandling around Germantown and Erie some weeks ago.

Family members said Pelzer likely took a bus to Atlantic City on her own.

Hackney says he knows all the regulars - some of whom actually get permits from the city of Atlantic City that allow them to panhandle, with restrictions - but adds that there are new people coming down all the time. Mostly, they are a nuisance issue, rarely they cross over into a crime issue.

"Every day you see new guys," he said. "We do all we can do."

Sonny Patel, a traffic officer near the bus station, said he sees "new faces" every day emerging from bus stations, dressed in ill-fitting clothes or suits given to them by shelters or jails. "It's very risky right now," he said.

The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority's master plan has called for the city to block access under the Boardwalk, and to clear away debris that has accumulated in regular sleeping areas. The city's Boardwalk "ambassadors" are told to refer problem cases to city services.

The CRDA gave the Rescue Mission $89,000 to help fund the transportation of individuals back to their original communities, if possible.

Southrey said the mission has seen 87 people from Pennsylvania so far this year, 42 from Gloucester County, 56 from Cumberland County, and 70 from Camden County, most without referrals. He called Gloucester County one of the worst offenders in sending people without referrals, which county officials denied.

Ed Smith, superintendent of the Gloucester County Division of Social Services, said an average of two or three people are referred to the Atlantic City shelter a week. The county deals with 100 to 150 homeless a week and houses most in Gloucester and Camden Counties.

"Although we refer them down there, we never know if they make it," Smith said.

Smith said he was not familiar with the Stell case. Social Services, he said, works closely with the jail to have homeless inmates evaluated to see whether they qualify for services in the county.

"I don't know why they would drive him directly from the jail. That's not standard procedure," Smith said.

Gloucester does not have a shelter for men, and families may prefer to go to the Atlantic City shelter where they can stay together, Smith said.

No one keeps track of how many people choose to go to Atlantic City from Gloucester County, he said. Smith said the county on occasion does provide a bus ticket or other transportation. Those cases are few, he said, estimating them at about six a year.

To discourage the practice of putting the homeless on buses to Atlantic City, a bill introduced in the New Jersey Assembly earlier this month would fine case workers if they send clients to another jurisdiction without a treatment plan and official referral.

Back at the mission, amid the cacophony of a yard filled with homeless people and their luggage (the mission does not allow people to store a lot of belongings there), Anthony Dobson, 50, of Camden, said he'd spent more than 30 years in and out of jail - for robbery, theft by deception, being treated for mental health issues, "30 years of making poor decisions." He has been kicked out of the mission, except for meals. He shows up at the public library at 9 a.m. to work on getting permanent housing.

He said he got to Atlantic City from Southern State Correctional Facility in Cumberland County. "Jail gives you a bus ticket," he said. "It was either Camden or Atlantic City. To me, it was a no-brainer."