Atlantic City seeks to clear beach of the down and out Homeless who live under boardwalk blight city's image

September 18, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. - The beach here is a wide-open secret. Clean and pretty, it is neither too broad nor too narrow, complemented by an ocean that plays frisky but not rough. Yet it is never crowded, even when the boardwalk becomes so thick with tourists that they look like one giant organism.

For the people who live under the boardwalk, such a roomy beach is quite a blessing. It lets them poke in and out of their niches without attracting much notice. Alice B. and her two sons, for instance, had a whole chunk of surf and sand to themselves the other day when they left their encampment under the Million Dollar Pier.

Not that many people on the boardwalk would notice them, what with all the comings and goings at the Ocean One Mall above them, and the new Disneyesque Wild West casino across the way. Still, to anyone who did happen to see them - the boys, ages 10 and 11, jumping waves as their mother watched on a green army blanket - they looked just like any other family on a day's outing.

"If things were as empty under there as it is here, we wouldn't have no problems," said Ms. B., gesturing under the pier. What looked like a pile of blankets and clothes was moving; gradually, a man between 50 and 70 years old came crawling out from a square bed sculpted out of hard sand. Two men, holding those big bottles of beer, stood about 10 feet from him. Another pile of clothes, and another man, was plopped about 10 feet from them.

Ms. B., a big woman who didn't want her last name in the newspaper, said that in the two weeks since she and her boys had been camping under the boardwalk - temporarily, and anonymously, she stressed - they found it hard to find an undiscovered stretch. The city has noticed this, too. It continues to lose residents (it is down to 37,000, from 66,000 when "The WPA Guide to 1930s New Jersey" dubbed Atlantic City "an amusement factory"), but the population under the boardwalk is teeming. Since April, the police have made three sweeps under the boardwalk.

The plan is to clear the beach of the people who tend to congregate on the boardwalk by day, drunk or high or just plain down and out. Many either aggressively panhandle or unwittingly scare tourists, not a good thing for a place aiming to become a family vacation destination. But as the resort attracts new visitors, it attracts new people with no money and nowhere else to go. When the homeless are cleared away, others take their place in a cycle that will seemingly take more than occasional sweeps under the Boardwalk to break.

What this will mean for the city when its new wave of casinos is completed, who can say? Recently, the City Council voted to allow gambling on four piers. Already, ITT Corp. announced that the Ocean One Mall, where city residents shop for clothes, will become a casino and entertainment complex. This on top of all the other casinos in the works, like the one with a Lost City of Atlantis theme, and Stephen Wynn's $2 billion project in the marina district.

The Atlantic City Rescue Mission is trying to meet the demands of the new homeless lured by the prospect of jackpots, handouts or jobs. But since many flit in and out of here, they are hard to help. The shelter, which offers job training and other services besides beds and three square meals, has a 50 percent success rate for those who graduate from its programs. But others drop out along the way. Or they leave after 10 days, the deadline for enrolling in a program. Some leave even sooner.

Barry Durman, the shelter president, says some people can't accept the shelter's rules and regulations, including curfews and chores and mandatory attendance at one of two daily nondenominational Christian chapel services. For those who can't abide the rules, there is nowhere else to go but back on the boardwalk, or under it.

Pub Date: 9/18/97

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