"There's nothing wrong with Atlantic City that a little sunshine can't cure." This quote is often attributed to Mayor Joseph Altman, Atlantic City's longest serving mayor (1944-1968). Unfortunately, Altman was wrong. By the end of his tenure, Atlantic City had several problems that needed more than sunshine or a sunny slogan to fix.
I think of Altman's quote when I see some of the responses to the recent tragic stabbing deaths of two tourists in front of the hospital. Responses included, "Things are getting better," and "This is an isolated incident." On the day after the tourist murders, there was another stabbing near the Rescue Mission. It was not fatal and did not involve tourists so it did not receive much publicity, but it happened and happens with too much frequency.
I do not like the Philly Daily News headline, "Tourist Death Trap," anymore than anyone else. It is clearly over the top. But, we must recognize the reality that this isolated incident is one of a number of high profile murders, including two from carjackings and one on the casino floor in recent years. Our revered Boardwalk can be a gauntlet of homeless panhandlers.
We have a problem.
Our ability to keep criminals out is limited, but regarding the homeless, there are things we can, should and must do.
Atlantic City cannot be the economic engine for the region with an economy based on tourism, if it is the premier site of social agencies that serve the homeless. Within easy walking distance of each other, Atlantic City has the Rescue Mission, the John Brooks Institute, Sister Jean's Kitchen and Covenant House. More significantly, they are within easy walking distance of the Boardwalk, the Casinos, The Walk and the Convention Center.
Atlantic City easily attracts homeless individuals because it offers places to sleep, eat, panhandle, and plenty of access to the things that may have caused their homelessness in the first place-- alcoholism, compulsive gambling or drugs.
Certainly, all of the agencies try their best to steer their clients away from destructive behavior. Each is run by compassionate professionals trying to change lives for the better.
But we need to have compassion for the 12,000 people who have lost their jobs over the last several years. Is it the fault of these agencies? No, but if we are going to recapture some of these jobs, we need to address the issue of homelessness on a regional basis - which is fair, as most of these individuals come from all over the region, not Atlantic City.
It has been suggested that the Rescue Mission run their facility at Ancora, the state mental health facility that has room, leaving only an intake unit in Atlantic City. Recognizing that not all poor people have a mental illness, this hospital facility has the space to address a variety of social service needs. Let's do it.
The John Brooks Institute actually wants to relocate to an industrial site outside of Atlantic City, leaving a small presence in Atlantic City. Let's do it.
Sister Jean's Kitchen should be relocated off of Pacific Ave., perhaps to the Rescue Mission which would have the space if their main location were elsewhere. Let's do it.
Let's not make the mistake that was made during Atlantic City's decline in the 60's, pretending that all is well. We have many problems, but the problem of homelessness can be addressed. Let's do it.