New York City wouldn’t let me anywhere near its shelters. The Atlantic City Mission, however, allowed me to be homeless for a night.
Checking in and finding a bed was quite an experience, which I’ve described in detail here. To see what the shelter looked like the following day, when the several hundred residents were out on the streets, check out the following slides.
Or you can make your way to the Atlantic City Homeless Shelter. I decided to spend the night there to see what it was like..
A campus that accepts men, women, and some children, the shelter is funded by private donations. It sits within sight of the Borgota, a glistening boardwalk hotel and casino.
The reception area is much less crowded here at lunchtime than it was the night before (when I arrived to spend the night). Virtually anyone can walk off the street, go to this window, find a place to sleep, a meal, and a shower.
You also get a list of shelter rules. They're not usually rigidly enforced, but they can be. Shelter CEO Bill Southrey understands who he is helping and the residents all seem to respect him for it.
The shelter serves 900 meals a day in its cafeteria. One of the residents told me if I planned to stay, I'd better expect to gain weight. Meals have a lot of starch and carbs.
Many residents sleep on mats like these, which are spread over the first floor of the shelter at night. With the number of residents growing so rapidly, staff expect to be using the tables in the cafeteria soon to accommodate demand. Residents will then have to sleep sitting up with their heads on the table.
Upstairs, there are bunk beds for people who arrive early, or who are in one of the many long-term programs available to residents. The bunks, obviously, are where you want to be.
Residents can stay as long as they need. After finding a job, they give 10% of their income to the shelter, 70% goes into a savings account, and 20% is used on daily necessities. The bunks are in cans filled with soil to fight bedbugs.
For the most part, residents come and go as they please, and sleep during the day if their job is at night.
Michael Acosta came to the shelter from King of Prussia. The Atlantic City mission is renowned for its willingness to really give people the tools they need to get off the streets. So people from outside the area frequently check in.
Most rooms for long-term residents have two beds in them, like college dorms, and everyone has their own space for personal items.
Rob's very into ball caps. Residents do what they can to bring part of their lives with them in the shelter.
Mike Zaydal, 21, is the youngest resident and he also struggled with drug addiction. He says rooming with Rob has helped him get clean.
It was a Tuesday, which is deep cleaning day, and while the women and kids have to be someplace else until dinner, evidence of families was everywhere.
Everywhere, there are signs that the women are trying to improve their lives. Self improvement books were common. This one had a highlighter wedged between its pages.
This is where the women and kids congregate. It was tough to imagine it filled with laughing kids and harried mums. Staff said the kids love living in the next room over from their friends.
This is an outdoor play area for the kids off the common room. The mothers can smoke out here and keep their kids away from the general shelter population.
The same staffer told me that there are kids here who are third generation shelter children. Their grandmothers, and their mothers both lived here as well.
The shelter also has a warehouse that offers household goods to people moving into a new apartment that can't afford to furnish it.
Some people hardly ever come to the shelter. Steven started drinking when he was eight years old, left home at 14 and has been an alcoholic since. His mental development stopped when he took to the streets. According to outreach staff, he still acts like a young teenager.
Steven and others who won't come to the shelter sleep in select spots around the city — like the base of this old billboard.
The sand has been scooped away near the boardwalk and several people have made accommodations inside.
Along the boardwalk, where the sand has been bulldozed to the boards to keep them out, some homeless people have taken advantage of some erosion
There is one officer in the city tasked with helping the shelter address the homeless. Officer Weinz is by all accounts a kind and compassionate guy, who gets ridiculed by his fellow police officers for the work that he does.
The only thing worse than the way it looks is the way it smells — like a very dirty public men's room. One person will enter the casino and open the door for others to get off the streets in the cold.
All things considered the shelter was manageable. The biggest factor was the staff, they treated me like a normal person. An equal. Exactly the opposite of how I was treated when I tried applying to NYC shelters.
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