When Thomas Jones, a native of Asbury Park on the Jersey Shore, wanted to get clean and straighten out his life, service providers in his county gave him a one-way ticket to Trenton, 60 miles away. “In Asbury Park they didn’t have assistance—no shelter, no soup kitchen,” he said. “They just push you out to Trenton or Atlantic City.” Other homeless men recounted similar stories. When they got out of prison or lost their jobs and couldn’t keep up with the bills, they sought help. Instead, they were offered one-way bus rides to the Trenton or Atlantic City, home to the Trenton and Atlantic City Rescue Missions, the only two comprehensive shelters for adults without children in the southern half of the state.
The practice—shipping homeless people off to cities better-equipped to provide services—is common enough in southern New Jersey that it’s come to be known as “Greyhound Therapy.” It’s difficult to quantify given that it’s not an official policy and there is no single offending agency, but homeless people and service providers alike report it is widespread. “Clients very often have recent medical exposure and the hospital doesn’t want to discharge them into homelessness so they tell them to go to Trenton,” says Mary Gay Abbott-Young, chief executive officer of the Trenton Rescue Mission. “The person shows up sometimes still wearing a hospital gown with a stack of prescriptions. We’ve had pre-paid taxis pull up.”
But Greyhound Therapy is a symptom of a larger problem. Even though single adults, especially men, are most likely to become homeless, most of the shelters in the state’s southern counties are designated for other groups—victims of domestic abuse, teenagers, and mothers with children. This leaves the two rescue missions—located in areas with few jobs, concentrated poverty, and violence—to pick up the slack. The two shelters provide drug and alcohol counseling, hot meals, beds, showers, clothing, and assistance in finding jobs or housing seven days a week.
There are plenty of homeless people who arrive in Trenton and Atlantic City on their own, of course. It’s easier to get to either city by mass transit than practically anywhere else in the lower half of the state; New Jersey Transit runs its sole South Jersey line to Atlantic City, while Trenton serves as a major transportation center between New York and Philly. Both are denser areas where a car isn’t a necessary.
But the lack of such shelter elsewhere means the systems in Atlantic City and Trenton are strained, and Greyhound Therapy only makes things worse. The Atlantic City Rescue Mission is full even in the summer months, when many homeless sleep under the Boardwalk. “We have people sleeping on mats in the cafeteria, and when it gets cold, people are sleeping everywhere they can in this building,” says John Demario, associate director of development at the Atlantic City Rescue Mission. “The [third floor with] mom’s and single women and kids, that’s always packed.”
While the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) 2013 count of the homeless population in New Jersey shows a statewide decline in the last several years, some areas saw sharp increases. The number of homeless in Atlantic County jumped from 410 in 2009 to 746 in 2013. While the number fell in Mercer County, where Trenton is located, advocates for the homeless say they have nonetheless seen a sharp increase in demand (the homeless population is notoriously difficult to track, and advocates estimate the count from HUD only represents a quarter of the population). “Homelessness is a growth industry now, the demand is so great,” Demario says.
High unemployment and a lack of affordable housing—along with the impact of Hurricane Sandy—are the main factors contributing to homelessness in South Jersey. The state has the fourth highest cost of housing in America. Housing costs are lower in the southern half of the state—Atlantic County has the cheapest of any county in the state—but a recent National Low Income Housing Coalition report shows that they are less affordable because wages are lower. In Ocean, Atlantic, Cumberland, and Cape May counties, a family would need more than two earners working full time at the estimated mean renter wages to afford fair market rent. Section 8 is of no assistance, because the rolls are maxed out. Trenton-based homeless advocate Connie Mercer says the last person her organization placed in Section 8 housing had been on the waiting list for 12 years.
The jobs problem in New Jersey, where unemployment has remained higher than the national rate since 2011, is deeply rooted. The problem is especially acute in coastal counties of South Jersey because the economy relies heavily on summer tourism, which means unemployment shoots up when it gets cold. The casino-hotel that dot Atlantic City once helped counteract the seasonal downturn, but in 2006 gambling took off in neighboring Pennsylvania and New Jersey’s casino winnings have been falling ever since.. During the 1990s, when the industry was strongest, the casinos employed up to 50,000 people, many in high-wage, union positions. Today that number is 32,432 and dropping.
“When I was 17 or 18—back in 1982—I started working in the casinos,” says Faridal Gahah, who has stayed in the Atlantic City Rescue Mission on and off for the last couple years. “I could get a job like that,” he says, snapping his fingers. Now that the casino jobs have dried up, Gahah works part-time at an industrial laundromat year-round and grills cheesesteaks on the Boardwalk in the summer. When that shop closed for the winter, he couldn’t keep up with rent and now sleeps on a cot on the shelter’s second floor, where the adult men bunk. “I’m a regular Joe, I’m a human being, I just have a financial problem. I’m using this place to lay down and get out of the cold.”
The decline of the casino economy in South Jersey has led some counties to try to reinvent their strategies for helping the homeless. Atlantic City’s attempt to rebrand itself as a family-friendly resort town has brought pressure on neighboring counties to curb the practice of Greyhound Therapy. In 2012, two Atlantic County state assembly reps, both Republicans, introduced legislation to regulate the practice of shipping homeless people off to different cities by requiring municipalities, social-service agencies, or police departments to provide thorough care-management plans for patients, including coordination with the receiving agency. Those who did not could face fines or jail time.
“There were nine counties in South Jersey that regularly send homeless to Atlantic County,” says Assemblyman Chris Brown. “When you have a homeless person, they need a support base. Where do you get a support base? Right there with your friends, families, neighbors. To take a human being, stick them on a bus, and send them to a place they’ve never been is appalling.” Governor Chris Christie expressed support of Brown’s goals, although the bill didn’t make it out of committee.
While the legislature looks at ways to curb the practice of Greyhound Therapy, the Atlantic City Rescue Mission is taking matters into its own hands. In 2012 the mission sued sued Ocean County, alleging it had spent over $2 million to provide services to people from Ocean County while only receiving $105,000 in donations. Although the suit has been dropped, Ocean County has entered into talks with the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, although there is no word if the county will open its own comprehensive shelter. To the south, Cape May’s authorities are allowing the Atlantic City Rescue Mission to rehabilitate and run an existing shelter in Wildwood, where the social-services board can direct the homeless once it opens in June.
But besides Ocean and Cape May, other counties in the western part of the state have done little to improve services for the homeless. For them, Greyhound Therapy is a quick fix to a problem they’d rather avoid. “Nobody wants a homeless shelter in their town,” says Demario. “They just don’t.”